Friday, March 14, 2014

The American Human Beatbox Festival

"I can beatbox!" SW said. "Boots 'n' cats 'n' boots 'n' cats 'n'..." 

We laughed. We knew full well the people we'd see tonight were far better than the sound the phrase "boots 'n' cats" made when you said it really quickly. In fact, since we were attending the Annual American Human Beatbox Festival, we were anticipating our minds being blown. 

Opening Night Open Mic Beatboxers
A friend of mine, who goes by Benbox (and did a Tedx Talk called "Beatbox as a universal language"! Also, a fun story about Benbox: the night I met him, we went out with a group for Chinese food. While we were waiting for the food, I made some kind of clicking noise with my tongue and apologized to him. He said, "Please, you're talking to someone who makes funny mouth noises for a living!"), invited me to the festival. Curated by beat MC Kid Lucky (who himself has beatboxed for the likes of Panasonic, NBC and MTV), the festival is now in its fourth year and is held at the renowned experimental theatre La MaMa in the East Village. According to the theatre, the goal of the festival is to "bring together legendary and emerging beatboxers and [introduce] La MaMa’s audience to that artistry’s expanding global community." I'm not sure why, but people seem to forget beatboxing is an art form. The mouth is, after all, a musical instrument. 

Why yes, DJ Menyu, the evening was dope!

I had heard people beatbox before, obviously. But it was always sort of in the background. At the festival, however, it is of course at the forefront. SW and I attended the Opening Night Open Mic, where beatboxers from all across America (Rhode Island, California, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and the list goes on) performed for three to five minutes each. Microphones tucked close to their faces, some holding a finger tight to their noses, they produced entire scenes of robot takeovers, ping-pong matches, and video games all with their mouths. Clicks and pops and pows and bass drums and hi-hats and is frankly a little difficult to describe what I saw without using a succession of onomatopoetic words and musical instruments.

But for every single one of the performances, I sat there with my mouth open, utterly astonished at what these people where doing. I gripped my face for dear life, certain that it would melt off from all of the awesome. These performers were, as solitary people, an entire orchestra. And then you put them together? It would be an understatement to say our minds were successfully blown. 

Kaila Mullady, 2013 Beatrhyme Champion
There were so many diverse kinds of beatboxing, too--influences ranging from electronica to hip-hop to blues, and incorporating dance elements like popping and locking and even a harmonica. I didn't really know there were so many ways to beatbox, so many ideas to incorporate into sounds you made with your mouth. As with any art form, though, what makes it great is the way so many different people interpret what it can be.

I really loved seeing this warm, accepting community of beatboxers, too-- as Benbox said as SW and I were leaving, "this is it, this is the family." At one point, all of the beatboxers got on stage to help out a newbie, and two young beatboxers (about 15 years old! Someone in the audience commented, "That's the future right there!") got a rousing bout of applause. Because people want to further the art form, they want to help and encourage each other.

It's often said that the sign of a successful musical is when one leaves the theatre humming or singing a tune from the show. So when one leaves a show valiantly attempting to beatbox, the same must be true. SW and I left La Mama and walked down 4th Street, popping and clicking our mouths, wondering seriously but not too seriously if maybe we could beatbox too?

The American Human Beatbox Festival continues all this weekend at La MaMa, and you should definitely, DEFINITELY check it out. Click here for more information about different American Human Beatbox Festival events. 

The Opening Night Open Mic Beatboxers, conducted by Kid Lucky
(that's Benbox starting in the middle)