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No Instruments Required: The Body Music Festival Returns

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Musicians from around the world are getting ready to gather at Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park Bandshell. But don't expect any instruments.

The Body Music Festival spotlights musicians who use what their respective mamas gave them: beat-boxers, step dancers, and anyone else who makes music exclusively out of their mouths, hands, feet, and bodies.

The 3-year-old-festival is the brainchild of San Fransiscan body percussionist Keith Terry, who leads the SLAMMIN' All-Body Band, a group that combines ideas from tap dancing, acapella, and vocal percussion to make instrument-free music. Past performers include beat-box legend Kenny Muhammad and Afro-Cuban tapper Max Pollak.

"In some ways, I feel like [body music] is the antidote to the high-tech era that we live in," says Terry. "We're surrounded by digital media and computers and smart phones, and it's sort of the opposite side of the coin, in that it's purely acoustic and totally unplugged."

The concert is just a one day mini-festival (the actual Body Music Festival is happening this November in Sao Paolo, Brazil), and it centers around Terry's group and Barbatuqes, a 12-person body orchestra from Brazil. Hambone artist Derique McGee and Inuit throat singers Celina Kalluk and Lucie Idlout will perform as well.

In the course of organizing the festival and advocating for body music, Keith Terry has done some deep research into the numerous body music traditions found around the world. He gave us a crash course on some of the most bizarre and beautiful styles out there.


Katajjaq, Inuit Throat Singing from Nunavut, Canada

It’s really really unique. It’s primarily done by women, and they stand really close to each other, kind of singing into each other’s mouths and using their mouths as resonators, kind of getting this sound that is both futuristic and antique at the same time. Really beautiful,traditional style.


Hambone, Body Percussion from the American South

The lore goes that, I think in 1739 there was a slave rebellion called the Stono rebellio., Apparently, as a way of repressing the rebellion, the slave owners took away the drums from the slaves, because they were concerned that the slaves  were communicating ideas and thoughts over long distances with their drums. As a result, they started playing the rhythms on their bodies and created the style of hambone. It’s fairly stationary, seated or standing, it doesn’t move around a great deal, and there are songs that go with it, there are a set a vocabulary of the movement and rhythms that go with it, and lots of variation and improvisation that goes along with it.


Kecak, Balinese Percussive Chanting

Kecak is an interlocking vocal percussion, and it’s done in Bali, Indonesia. It’s done in concentric circles of performers, and they do this really fast chanting with interlocking parts and polyrhythms.


Armpit Music from Ethiopia

And then one of my very favorites comes from Ethiopia, which is Ethopian armpit music, which is created by cupping the hand under the shirt and making those sounds. A friend sent me a recroding of it a couple of year ago, and he sent a note describing the scene. He said people were astaniding ina  circle clapping a pulse, and then one by one, people would come into the center of the circle and play their armpit. This recording was so amazing – when I listened to it without the explanation, I couldn’t identify it, it was just such a remarkable sound.  


Terry’s SLAMMIN’ All-Body Band, building up a song from scratch:

Barbatuques, the Brazillian body orchestra, performing next Thursday at the Body Music Festival:

Highlights from the 2008 Body Music Festival in San Francisco, including many of the styles described above:

Listen out for Keith Terry on WNYC's Soundcheck, next Thursday.