Elevate Difference

1st International Body Music Festival (12/07/2008)

San Francisco, California

I wasn’t sure what to expect. What is body music anyway? It’s more than music you can see, and dance you can hear. It’s more than the percussive sounds and melodies made by rhythmic clapping, stomping, chanting, cheek popping, and belly- and chest-slapping that can perfectly mimic any instrument or generate sounds you’ve never heard.

Body music is a collaboration among performers and spectators that takes one of our most basic assets and transforms it into a medium through which we connect, communicate, and create a music of movement.

The nearly week-long International Body Music Festival was the first of its kind, bringing together a variety of body music styles from nine ensembles in settings that were both educational and entertaining. Youth and teacher training workshops filled the days, while concerts featuring throat singers, hambone, Slammin All-Body Band, Balinese Kecak (or monkey chant), and Brazilian body music ensemble Barbatuques took place during the evenings.

The festival’s final concert began with the young woman of Top Notch Steppers, a San Francisco-based drill team. Next, Canadian cousins Celine Kalluk and Lucie Idlout performed the ancient art of Inuit throat singing (katajjaq), whereby the partners use each others’ mouths as resonators to produce guttural vocal sounds through distinctive voice manipulation and breathing techniques. In an intimate nose-to-nose stance, the woman sang in a playful contest to see who could outlast the other. Derique McGee kept the audience laughing with his youthful presentation of clowning and hambone—a style of body music originating from the plantation-era when slaves were banned from using rhythmic instruments.

Truly striking, though, was the brilliant premier of the Barbatuques-Slammin collaboration. Close your eyes and try to imagine the sounds of a tropical rainforest as day breaks—of an orangutan, frog, or rooster. Imagine horns and flutes, the infectious harmonies of a jazz band, and a dance-inducing percussive pulse. Now, imagine all of this accomplished with nothing more than one’s body. In the grand finale, Brazil’s Barbatuques and Oakland’s Slammin All-Body Band transcended barriers of time and space as they moved through a fresh cross-cultural dialogue of diverse body rhythms. The organic, authentic performance pulled from rich musical traditions and transformed spectators into participants.

While the performers departed from expected norms of music creation, I noticed too that the customary categories of distinction (and often oppression), seemed to melt away as well. The first International Body Music Festival opened up an egalitarian space, offering an inspiring exploration into the roots of music and community cohesion.

Written by: Sofia Marin, December 30th 2008