With the acclaimed London beatboxer Beardyman appearing at the Coachella festival this week and touring the UK next month, Ludovic Hunter-Tilney examines the art of making music with your own body.
The low-brow 1984 comedy Police Academy launched Steve Guttenberg’s acting career and caused uproarious merriment with dialogue like, “Drop that stereo before I blow your goddamn nuts off.” But its real claim to immortality rests on introducing the world to beatboxing, the hip-hop act of mimicry whereby a person uses their voice to imitate the sound of a drum machine. In his first scene as one of the hapless US police cadets, Michael Winslow , the self-styled “man of 10,000 sound effects”, is shown creating an acapella rap beat. A year later, in 1985, the first classic beatbox track came out of the Bronx, Doug E Fresh’s “La Di Da Di”.
Turn to your partner. Hold each others’ arms. Both start making a series of rhythmic exhalations. Feel free to sway from side to side. Well done: you have taken the first steps to mastering the art of the Inuit throat singer, a vocal activity practised by aboriginal people in the Canadian Arctic - traditionally women whiling away time when their menfolk were away on hunting trips. Modern adepts include Björk collaborator Tanya Tagaq.
What a marvel the human body is! Among its many wonders is the armpit; an ordinary-seeming cavity which in the right hands - Ethiopian hands mainly - can become a versatile musical instrument. It’s done by cupping a hand under the armpit and making squelching noises. In Ethiopia there’s a tradition of using it as a form of percussion, a practice exported abroad by US body musician maestro Keith Terry. LA indie act Ariel Pink has also been known to use his armpit instead of bass or drum parts.
Legend has it that Otis Redding didn’t know how to finish “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”. So the great soul singer whistled the last verse - the perfect ending for a song about sitting around “wastin’ time”. Alessandro Alessandroni’s soundtrack for the spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars uses whistling as a haunting solitary cadence, the sound of a man in black with pursed lips and a six-shooter. Meanwhile Scorpions welcomed the end of the cold war with the rock anthem “Wind of Change”, which celebrated the wind of change blowing over Europe with a stirring whistled motif. See what they did there?
At the bleeding-edge of body music electrical currents from the body are fed into laptops to create corporeal electronica and songs are made from the sounds of muscles moving. In 2001 US duo Matmos made a surprisingly perky album from recordings of surgical procedures: sucky liposuction noises, glinting scalpels, the drone of a surgeon talking about golf. OK, not the latter.
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop critic