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Vocal percussion, some outstanding vocal percussionists and imitating a drum kit
By Michelle Liew Tsui-Lin
How nice the human voice is when it isn't singing. - Rudolf Bing
The truth and humor in the above quote from Opera Impresario Rudolf Bing stood out to me, not least because of its inherent irony and the apt way it sums up this article on vocal percussion.
But, I do disagree with him a tad. The human voice is beautiful either way, whether it is singing or engaging in a little mimicking of the rhythms of instruments other than itself.
And so, I admire those who employ, masterfully, the techniques of vocal percussion. Mind, it can be annoying to some and getting close to a little spittle may not exactly be for everybody.
Nevertheless, it is a musical form that has gained popularity in very recent decades because of the emergence of hip hop and rap culture. But vocal percussion is a form that embraces more than that, as I will explain i this article, as well as provide a few tips for anyone who is an aspiring vocal percussionist. I will also introduce a few outstanding vocal percussionists who have made a difference to the music scene.
What is vocal percussion, really?
Vocal Percussion, or known as VP in the singing community, is the technique of creating sounds and rhythms that come close to or mimic the sounds of percussion instruments. The technique of vocal percussion can be employed whether as a soloist, with a group of singers or as an accompaniment to other instruments. Like all percussion instruments, the voice is also used by musicians to keep time while they perform.
Often, the term vocal percussion is used synonymously with beatboxing, a form of vocal percussion emulating drum beats primarily employed by hip hop performers. However, while beatboxing is a form of vocal percussion, it is only one variation. Musicians the world over have employed this technique as a form of rhythmic expression.
The origins of vocal percussion
Vocal percussion, unlimited to rap music, is musical expression steeped in history. How would earlier civilizations embraced music without the benefit of instrumentation that could create the rhythms they needed?
There were early forms of vocal percussion. Here are but a few.
Bois are mnemonic syllables used to define the tala, or rhythmic pattern in Indian music. Bols comes from the Hindi world Bolha, or ‘to speak.” The technique of using Bols is employed primarily in North Indian music.
Bols are used extensively in Indian classical drumming. They are used, for example, to accompany tabla drums. As different musicians have different styles of performance, specific bol techniques are applicable to them.
Konnakol and solkattu
Konnakol is the art of using the spoken word, employed in the music of South India, particularly in Carnatic music. It is the South Indian Classical art of vocal percussion, the spoken part of Solkattu, a string of syllables performed while counting the tala or rhythm by hand.
The practice of using Konnakol has been employed by many musicians the world over. Unlike bols, a technique in which the percussionist uses finger placement, konnakol syllables outnumber the finger placements on any percussion instrument.
A Chinese music performance tradition, literally translated means “mouth skill.” It is a skill which uses the vocal organs to mimic the sounds of everyday life. It is used primarily to complement the arts of storytelling, singing or acting.
Earlier use of the kouji technique involved the imitation of animals like cats, dogs or cows. With the advancement of technology, the sounds used include planes, tanks and even bombs. A highly skilled kouji performer, it stands to reason, is one whose work cannot be told apart from the real animal or instrument he is imitating.
Marcos Valle Mentira
Outstanding vocal percussionists in World Music
Yes, vocal percussion is definitely not limited to beatboxing or rap music. Musicians the world over have employed vocal percussion techniques to generate the rhythms necessary to complement their music. Here are some of them.
Brazilian songwriter, singer, instrumentalist and record producer Marcos Valle is a true musician’s musician who has embraced many musical styles in his work, including the bossa nova and the samba, with tracks like samba demais and Bossa Entre Amigos.He has employed many techniques to complement his music, including the use of electronics and vocal percussion.
In the track Mentira, from his album Previsao Dol Tempo, Valle imitates a drumkit for one fill and repeating pattern.
Remember Sakthi John McLaughlin/V Selvaganesh
English guitarist and composer John McLaughlin has become one of the pioneering artists in jazz fusion The leader of the Mahavishnu Orchestra employs the use of konnakol syllables to create an eclectic mix of jazz and rock sounds, making his music complex and rich with polyrhythms. He is widely known as the father of fusion guitar.
Remember Sakthi V Selvaganesh/John McLaughlin
Noted as a Konnokol Virtuoso, Selvaganesh is an Indian percussionist who notably performed with McLaughlin with the group, Remember Shakti.
The son of grammy winner T.H. Vinnayakram, Selvaganesh runs the JGTV school and trains a new generation of Carnatic percussionists. He has played with Swedish guitarist Jonash Selborg and American guitar virtuoso Shawn Lane. He is a noted composer for Tamil cinema.
The use of vocal percussion in Western Music
The form of VP that we are more familiar with is that of beatboxing. Connected with Hip Hop culture, beat boxing is used to complement rap music. It is the vocal form of turntablism, a term used to mean the creation of music using phonograph turntables. Jazz and scat singing is largely known to be an influence in the birth of vocal percussion.
The term was derived because of the vocal mimicry of the first generation of drum machines or beatboxes. These originated in the 1980s, and so did the musical form of beatboxing.
Doug E Fresh
Some famous beatboxers
Some of these rappers and musicians have become famous for their vocal skills, and I definitely do not mean speaking. Here are some fine folks who have made a musical career out of the human voice.
Doug E. Fresh
The American rapper, producer and beatboxer, Fresh is widely known for imitating the drum machine with uncanny accuracy, with only vocal organs and a microphone as tools. A famous track of his is La Di Da Di, voiced by MC RIcky D and Fresh’s beatboxing for the entire duration of the song. It gained a reputation as an early Hip Hop classic.
Jay Sean Maybe- the Hindi Version
The illustrious Kamaljit Singh Jhooti, known as the popular British singer, songwriter and beatboxer Jay Sean, debuted as a member of the Rishi Rich project with his UK Number 12 track, Dance with You. His album, Me against Myself, while only moderately successful in his homeland, sold more than 2 million copies across Asia.
What is notable about Sean is that he was the pioneer of Bhangra-R & B fusion. popular among Britian’s South Indian diaspora.
Bauchklang-Live in Mumbai
Literally ‘Belly Sound,” Bauchklang is a five piece beatboxing group from Austria. These 5 men form a vocal groove collective that stretches the musical landscape from Hip Hop to Electro.
Their first album, Jamzero, won 2 Amadeus awards for Best Album and the FM4 award. Their musical success led to musical tours through Europe and Canada. They released their album Live in Mumbai and did a tour through India with won them the Indecision Award for Best live act.
Tips for beatboxing
This section is for anyone who wants to try this as a musical complement or has youth in the home ready for a jam session. Beatboxing can be done by anybody, even non-musicians, with a little inclination to use voice and rhythm.Parents can employ these techniques to entertain children. Give beatboxing a try for the fun of it and who knows, stardom might be on the way!
1. Compile a group of syllables
Simply put, it involves the putting together of nonsense syllables that imitate the sound of a drum kit. Some examples are:
db - syllables representing the bass drum
dm- syllables representing toms of varying sizes and pitches
ts - syllables representing the high hat
ch - imitating cymbals
Beatboxing makes heavy use of plosives, fricatives, clicks and oscillations. Do listen to the videos to find out what these are.
2. Listen to music with drums.
Listen to music that relies heavily on drums. Music by Led Zepplin, The Who and the Rolling Stones are good examples of musicians who place high emphasis on drumming.
3. Learn to make use of the diaphragm.
The diaphragm is the dome shaped muscle located just below the lungs. Feel it rise and fall as you breathe in and out. The muscle is not literally what is used to produce the voice, but its function is to enable as much breath support as possible. Make sure that you are standing absolutely straight with no hunch and fill your lungs like a balloon. You should feel your tummy, sides and back expand. Try this until you get the hang of it and become more comfortable with the diaphragm and its functions.
Practice vocalizing loud sounds like “hua” in front of the mirror. When your abdomen is a little sore, you are using the diaphragm correctly.
4. Make use of the syllables you compiled.
Try imitating the kick drum first, using the words “doo” or “boo”. Once you are more familiar, pinch your lips around the “oo” sound to get a sound like “doof” or “bvvft”
When you can do that, move on to the hi hat. The way to do this is to make a “t” sound with your lips slightly closed. Move your tongue to the traditional position in which you would say “T” for a heavy hat sound and behind the teeth for a thin hat sound.
Then try the snare drum. The way to do this is to make a ‘p’ sound and oscillate it. The video I have attached gives a demonstration of how an oscillation is done.
Put in the crash cymbal. Use the “ch” fricative. Using your diaphragm, push the air out and make the fricative louder.
5. Combine these sounds and repeat them in riffs.
Try combining these sounds and repeating them so that you get a medley of unique sounds and rhythms. Repeat them in riffs or timed musical patterns. Again, the video attached gives a good demonstration of how the different syllables outlined can be combined to form outstanding vocal percussion riffs.
Vocal percussion is fun and inexpensive. Parents can even try it to entertain their young children with these sounds. Have fun!
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