Live Wire / Bobby McFerrin Shows There’s Such a Thing as Too Much Versatility

Performance at Tel Aviv Port was like a package tour of 12 countries in seven days.

Bobby McFerrin is a phenomenon, a musical artist who can do anything as a singer or performer. Since he can do anything, he was chosen official host of the new White City Music Festival that opened yesterday at the Tel Aviv Port. The question, though, remains: does someone who can do anything necessarily have to do it? The answer, as made clear by McFerrin’s appearance on opening night, is no.

The performance, in which McFerrin hosted five Israeli musicians and one dancer, was reminiscent of a chess game where the chess master goes from table to table, playing against a number of players at the same time. Music isn’t chess, and McFerrin of course played with and not against his accompanists. But the irregular format, in which McFerrin moved from one part of the stage to another every few minutes, jamming with one musician, then a second, then a third and so on, turned him into a musical Gary Kasparov, and the musicians into player-fans in a demonstration game.

Bobby McFerrin in Tel Aviv - Daniel Bar-On
Daniel Bar-On

Another metaphor that occurred to me was a package tour to 12 countries in seven days. McFerrin, in the role of the ultimate tour guide, jumped from one musical country to another every few minutes, met its citizens and improvised with them. Nothing was left out − African song, American standards, beat boxing, Jewish liturgy from North Africa, light jazz and featherlight blues.

The problem with organized tours of this sort, like with the chess exhibition, is that it always scratches the surface and never gets to the heart of things. You won’t find substance, just fun ‏(in the best case‏) or a scattered frenzy to do everything ‏(in the worst‏). These two vibes − one entertaining and the other tiring − came off the show of McFerrin & Co. In any case, there was no genuine art. And if there very occasionally was, it came in tiny doses of no more than a few minutes, isolated from one another.

The opening tended toward the tiresome side of the scale, but after 15 minutes something good happened, even within the constraints of the package tour.

McFerrin’s collaboration with the excellent woodwinds player Harel Shahal led to several brilliant moments. When the superlative Shlomo Bar began to sing the liturgical “Shahar evakesh,” it seemed that the whole business was going to get profound. But then, in a transition to which the adjective “abrupt” can’t do justice, McFerrin cut from the reverberations of the song to a punk number starring a beat boxer from the audience, and the show entered a terminal and irreversible phase of eclectic entertainment, except for one bit where some brave audience members jumped onto the stage and went wild. It was very nice, and even recalled the unforgettable performance of Iggy Pop at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. But that was a great performance by a great artist, and now we were witnessing the frustrating combination of a great artist with a weak act.

Bobby Meets Israel − Bobby McFerrin hosts Achinoam Nini and Gil Dor, Shlomo Bar and Ilan Ben Ami, Harel Shahar and Mona Mishal. Opening of the White City Music Festival, Hangar 11, Tel Aviv, May 1.