Primal instinct tells us to be wary of too many rhyming words.
Cautionary tales of show titles that have failed to deliver reverberate in the mind of the frequent concertgoer, who, from experience, has learned to be suspicious of performances that promise an experience too broad to be covered in a few hours. Last Thursday’s free concert in Bovard Auditorium — extravagantly headlined “From Bebop to Doo-Wop to Hip Hop” — boasted a “musical journey through the African Disapora.”
Even with piqued interest and elevated hopes, disappointment did not ensue. The show took viewers on a historical adventure in the evolution of African-American music, with panel discussions and musical selections intercutting each other so seamlessly that it would be difficult to argue whether the music or the dialogue made a greater impact in the hearts of audience members.
Almost before the ushers could quiet the excited crowd, the stage began to glow blue. Without warning, the show unfolded itself as student musicians whetted audience appetites with engaging examples of the respective genres of bebop, doo-wop and hip-hop. Eyes followed the spotlight as it jumped from the bebop band onstage to the four-man chorale on the left. Music did not wait, the opening number seemed to say, and neither did freedom nor justice nor the perpetual fight against oppression. Crisp trumpet notes introduced those in attendance to Dr. Ronald C. McCurdy, Thornton professor and moderator of the event.
The show began with a brief overview of the origins of African-American music from the slave trade era, in which music served the dual purpose of praising God and planning escape. Indeed, the common ancestor of bebop, doo-wop and hip-hop was firmly rooted in spiritual grounds, lending an unusual sonorous quality to all three genres. The showcase then launched into a rendition of “The Eternal Triangle” by Sonny Stitt, followed by an exploration of the vocal-based R&B style of doo-wop. Then, hip-hop, the genre most familiar to younger audience members, took on a new meaning as an instrument of social justice, with renowned rapper Tupac Shakur at its head as “defender of humanity.”
Panel discussions featured guest speakers such as Professor Jody Armour, famed saxophonist, bebop master James Moody and Leila Steinberg, past mentor and manager for Tupac. Expansive in its breadth and impressive in its depth, the event attracted many students and community members to Bovard.
The night culminated with a grand finale — a “cherry on top” in the form of an original composition incorporating elements from the three title genres of bebop, doo-wop and hip-hop. The mash-up of these instrumentations felt natural and uplifting. After all, they hailed from the same humble origin. The final performance, however, included a surprise element — the inclusion of the USC Kazan Taiko Ensemble. Some, justifiably, felt that traditional Japanese drums were out of place amid brass and keys, but perhaps the unexpected incorporation was meant to suggest a model of society based on the all-inclusive nature of music.
At first glance, posters advertising the event suggested an ordinary concert. Perhaps some students poured into Bovard expecting to be passively entertained, to be carried along in the smooth flow of melody — those students were mistaken.
The performance pulled listeners in, held them in rapt attention and engaged them in a life lesson through staggering tremolos. It taught us that poetry and music are inextricably tied and that the true musician considers himself duty-bound to embellish the composer’s work with a personal touch. It taught us to embrace the loosening of our borders, between politics and song, freeform improvisation and rigid adherence to the written score. More than anything, it cried to us in the rich bass vibrato of Reverend Charles A. Tindley’s “We Shall Overcome.” The concert was an ambitious project that promised to at once enlighten, inspire and entertain. It kept its promise.
There is one astonishing aspect of the night’s performance that handily trumped the rest — all of the performers are proud to call themselves Trojans. “From Bebop To Doo-Wop To Hip Hop,” a joint effort of Visions and Voices and the USC Thornton School of Music, collected some of the university’s finest musicians and social commentators, meshed together three distinctive products of African-American expression and showcased the result to an enthusiastic full house.
A full house on a Thursday night stands as evidence of a performance well-executed.
The event lived up to its colorful name. After all, what could students do but sway to the rhythm of the beat, mindful of the past and hopeful for the future?