A Voice Of Versatility

Baltimore performer Shodekeh toils to elevate beatboxing, often scorned as a sideshow, into an art form in itself

October 07, 2007|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,Sun reporter

A pan flute's mellow notes bring texture to soft and sharp percussive pops of sound: the crisp snap of a snare drum, the deadening punch of a bass drum and the scratching on a turntable.

THUMP bump bump bump SNAP bump bump bump.

For a few seconds, the disparate sounds fuse together and become song. Yet there are no drums, no turntable - just one musician.

A slight man with short hair and a stubbly beard, Dominic Earle Shodekeh Bouma sits alone, lowering his pensive, deep-set eyes as he blows into the pan flute. The small apartment is sparsely furnished, and the music echoes off the stark white walls and hard cement floor.

The flute is the only instrument. Shodekeh creates everything else with his voice. As a professional beatboxer, he can reproduce the sound of a full band with only his lips, throat and mouth.

He's been encouraged to play more instruments such as the piano, but the 30-year-old Baltimore musician isn't interested. As a beatboxer, he'd rather emulate the instrument with his voice. He can already reproduce drums, sleigh bells, vinyl record scratches and static and a didgeridoo, the Australian wind instrument. He can be a one-man act or accompany other instruments. But normally, he only uses a microphone, his voice and nothing more.

"Learning to play the piano really doesn't interest me," he says. "I want to take what I do as far as I can - vocally."

Professional beatboxers, who re-create multiple instruments with their voices, are a musical rarity. Only a few - such as a cappella artist Bobby

McFerrin, Doug E. Fresh and Rahzel of the hip-hop act the Roots - have found fame through vocal percussion. Pop stars such as Justin Timberlake have dabbled in it. But audiences often see it as a gimmick or a sideshow - not a serious musical pursuit.

"I have to surprise them," Shodekeh said. "If I play the situation right, I'll wind up overcoming that obstacle and knocking people off their [rear ends] at the same time."

Supported by art

In the past year, he has consistently eked out a living - for the first time in his life - as a beatboxer, or a vocal percussionist. He has no car or cell phone, and hardly enough furniture to fill his small apartment in the Creative Alliance at the Patterson. He keeps his clean clothes in two plastic red bins near the door of his place. Sometimes, he falls asleep on a small bluish-gray couch watching a movie on the TV that sits on the floor. But after dropping out of college and working odd jobs at restaurants and even a strip club, Shodekeh is at last able to support himself with his art.

Shodekeh - the name means "warrior" in Nigerian - performs solo and with other musicians at local clubs and cafes several times a week, and accompanies college dance classes to help pay the bills.

This semester, Shodekeh is the accompanist for the Community College of Baltimore County's hip-hop and modern dance classes. Christian Richards, director of the college's dance program, grew up break dancing and knew many other beatboxers. But Shodekeh bests them, he said.

"He's actually the best beatboxer I've ever heard," Richards said. "He's done some phenomenal stuff. He's right up there with the best."

When performing, Shodekeh trades his quiet demeanor for a more commanding presence - regardless of the setting. He strives to make beats with the same intensity in coffeehouses, clubs or college dance studios.

Shodekeh grips the microphone with his left hand and stresses his sounds with his right. He holds his right arm in front of him - often bent at an angle - his hand dipping on the low beats and lifting for the high pops and snaps. Sometimes he drags it through midair as he makes the sound of a record scratching, or circles it at chest level as he mimics vinyl static.

The beats can come in furious torrents or lighter patterns, depending on the song. Shodekeh's cheeks puff in and out, his Adam's apple bobs up and down in mid-throat and his eyes stare down at the floor or straight ahead in concentration.

When they hear there is a beatboxer about to take the stage, audiences are often polarized. Some people are excited. Most are skeptical at first, but quickly warm up once Shodekeh starts his performance.

"When they hear me and see how adaptable I am, what can they say?" Shodekeh said. "Let them underestimate me. I'll just use that to my advantage."

Starting young

Shodekeh grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Prince George's County. His first memory of beatboxing: He was 9, at the babysitter's two-story brick house in Landover Hills showing off for some girls.

"I guess they were enjoying it," he said.

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