The Times, May 14, 2008
- Ginny Dougary

Shlomo, beatboxer extraordinaire, is a courteous, cleancut young man with good teeth. This I know because he bared them repeatedly while demonstrating the basic skills of a percussive vocalist – a lip-smackingly resonant “B-uh”, followed by a wide-grinned “T-uh” and the finale of an open-mouthed primal pout “K-uh” – in a masterclass conducted for the benefit of my 17-year-old son and his mother.

This event came about because I thought it would be, you know, “wicked” to take my teenage sons – whose favourite mode of communication with one another is beatboxing – to experience Shlomo and his vocal orchestra presenting the world’s largest beatbox choir, alongside a beatbox chorus made up of 40 local schoolkids. On the morning of this Saturday’s concert at the Festival Hall members of the audience have been invited to a mega-workshop to prepare them for the finale of the evening gig. Now I have a head start and, boy, do I need one.

We meet in Shlomo’s office at the Festival Hall, where he is artist-in-residence with a brief to think ambitiously in every way. He has drawn up a list of world-class peformers with whom he would like to collaborate, three off the top of his head: Stevie Wonder “just a genius”, Brian Eno and Michael Jackson – “Well, about 30 years ago, before he started to go crazy”.

When Shlomo, 24, was a child he played percussion on pots and pans and was presented with a drum kit on his eighth birthday. His father, Jeremy Kahn, who is also his manager, is a jazz musician, and Shlomo started playing drums in his quartet from the age of 14. He also played in a local orchestra. “The timpani was my favourite, with the massive drums, and I would do my best to show off, basically.”

He has big issues with music in schools and music education in general: “Yes, the Government is pouring money into schools – it’s all about singing and it’s good stuff but at a city school, where you’re lucky if the kids even show up, you can turn up with a sound system and start beatboxing and straight away you can hit them because a) it’s cool and b) it’s something that everyone can do. They see one guy up there and it’s just his mouth – so there’s nothing they can’t do and have.”

As part of his mission to use beatboxing as a force for the good, Shlomo has set up a Beatbox Academy at the Battersea Arts Centre: “It’s only been going for a year but even if it’s just three hours when the kids aren’t on the streets stabbing each other, you’ve given them something they can take on elsewhere. Anything positive is going to reverse the spiral.”

He was “discovered” in his first term at Leeds University in 2003 having been persuaded by his parents and teachers to study astrophysics rather than go to music school. “The problem was that I used to smoke weed – don’t do that any more,” he adds hastily, “and that didn’t go with numbers and maths but was perfect for the music.” Foreign Beggars, the hip-hop crew, heard him performing outside a club and took him off on tour around Europe and Canada. “I didn’t think of it as making music, it was more like showing off with my solo party trick.”

A year later Björk asked him to perform with her at the Olympic Games “which blew my mind and changed my approach. That’s how I became hooked on the collaborative process”. Since then, he has worked with the comedian Bill Bailey, and Damon Alburn invited him to beatbox with Shlomo’s heroes, the Specials, who reunited at Glastonbury to sing A Message to You, Rudy. “Damon asked me whether I knew it. I said: ‘Do I know it? I only played it until it broke!’”

Shlomo is genuinely inclusive. I express some surprise about his collaboration last year with the Swingle Singers, for instance, because they seem so, well, square. He agrees that they are certainly “posh” and used to playing very formal concerts but what was “so wicked” was melding their harmonious “dabadabadabbadabbadoooos” with beatboxing underneath, and then slowing everything right down. I have to say that my boys seem to get a kick out of beatboxing to Nessun Dorma, so he’s obviously on to something here. And when the Swingles and Shlomo performed at the Big Chill Festival, 10,000 ravers just screamed their heads off – presumably in delight.

This summer Shlomo has a new commission for Wembley Stadium to create seven choirs representing different ethnic backgrounds with beatboxing as the common glue. The same choirs will be coming together in September for the Olympic changeover. But as Shlomo admits: “I’m never really satisfied. Everything I achieve is just the start.”

Off for our class in a recording studio in the bowels of the Festival Hall. Shlomo agrees that beatboxing is particularly alluring to teenage boys: “I don’t know why. It’s a bit of a boys’ club which upsets me because with the educational projects I do I’m not seeing many girls.” This interests me because it’s the polar opposite with choirs (I’m a member of two, the Brighton City Singers and the South London Choir), where women, including young girls, tend to far outnumber the men. At the Beatbox Championships there were more girls than boys in the audience but they don’t seem to have the confidence or inclination to perform themselves.

“I thought that one of the reasons girls don’t do it is that it’s too low for them, but there’s one girl in our choir – Belle (short for Bellatrix), who is 18, and she is phenomenal. She has made me realise that the really low bass stuff you do isn’t actually to do with your voice and how low you can sing, it’s all in your lips and resonance. I’ll show you how.”

First, a quick history of beatboxing. It came out of the hip-hop scene in the 1980s in America with the rappers and the breakdancers on the streets of the Bronx and Harlem, using their ghetto-blasters for the background beat. When the machines broke down, the human beatboxers took over. In the Nineties, beatboxing moved centre stage, Shlomo explains, with the likes of Rahzel and it was all “Wow! How’s he doing that with his mouth? Very kind of impressive. And now, with my generation, we’ve got past the point of it being impressive with solo performances and started to make it into music.”

The idea, I think, is to re-create the rhythm and sound of drums through the chamber of your mouth. So you replicate the kick of the drum (that sonic B vibration), then the high-hat of the cymbals (the T-uh) and the snaredrum (the K-uh). Listening to the tape it sounds more like the beating of metal against metal than something vocal. You then have to think about experimentation and independence. Both are tricky. The independence is like that exercise where you tap your head and rub your stomach, which some of us find challenging.

The experimentation is more tricky still: as I try to speed up, I just lose it and start drooling and making gibbering sounds, which may explain why young girls don’t do it – it’s exposing and quite unladylike. Breath control is the killer. Shlomo is always being asked how he does a song without seeming to pause for breath. He gives me various tips, such as drawing in breath while making an interesting sound so that it sounds like part of the beat. The problem is that I can’t create the beat in the first place.

There’s a eureka moment when he hands me a mike, teaches me to cup the end so that only a tiny circle of the head is revealed and then I lean over and “B-T-K-T” for all my worth. “Whooooohooo,” Shlomo says, “you’ve got really good snares going. Wicked.” I make kissing sounds out of the side of my mouth and horse whinnies and for a moment I feel as if a beatbox version of Damien has entered me. Even my son looks fleetingly unembarrassed.

When Shlomo finally gives us a demonstration – singing and drumming simultaneously as though he has two mouths in one – we are all enthralled. I’ve got a very long way to go but I’m willing to work on being the mother of all beatboxers.

* * *

Shlomo and the Vocal Orchestra: the world’s largest beatbox choir is on Saturday, 8pm, at QEH, Southbank Centre, London (0871 6632500)

Related posts:

  1. Music, food of Hove: Ginny Dougary prepares some shockingly filthy numbers
  2. Men and singing — why we need vocal heroes
  3. How do you pen a song for the Brighton Festival Fringe?
  4. A song for everyone
  5. Hitting all the right notes