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Southern Accents

Hip-Hop on the Mountain brings together urban beats and rural sounds

Frank Hamilton
Beatboxer Shodekeh (second from left) gets vocal with the Shapenote Sisters (from left, Patty Berry, Carly Goss, and Kathy Fahey).

By Lee Gardner | Posted 5/5/2010

Hip-Hop on the Mountain

The Creative Alliance May 8.

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One Thursday night in late 2008, Shodekeh went to a shape-note sing. As Baltimore's most renowned and most omnivorous beatboxer/vocal percussionist, he is fascinated by other a cappella musical traditions, and shape-note singing is one of the oldest in this country. Developed to facilitate choral singing among people with no musical training, it replaced the usual musical notation with easy-to-recognize shapes for each note on the scale. An 1844 collection of shape-note hymns titled The Sacred Harp codified the shape-note repertoire and has never been out of print, even though shape-note singing rarely flourished anywhere but the rural South. A small group of Baltimoreans had adopted and kept up the tradition, though, holding regular sings like the one Shodekeh, aka 32-year-old Dominic Bouma, attended, "just to observe and just soak up the moment and see what it was like."

He stood in the center of the traditional square formation and heard the often eerie harmonies and boisterous volume that go with traditional shape-note singing coming at him full force. But looking back on it now, it doesn't feel like such an exotic experience. "It reminded me of hip-hop ciphers 'cause they always form in a circle," he says by phone from Towson University, where he provides accompaniment for the dance department. "If one person wants to lead, he or she will stand in the center and lead the song, the same way that a breaker will get in the middle of a cipher and take the lead. That was really cool, that was really beautiful."

This week, Shodekeh gets another chance to explore the unexpected connections between hip-hop and shape-note singing and other forms of white Southern musical culture as he takes the stage at the Creative Alliance for an event billed as Hip-Hop on the Mountain. Part of the current series of CA exhibits and performances under the rubric Urban/Appalachia, the concert features a series of unlikely cultural collisions as breakdancers meet cloggers, DJ Booman cuts up country tunes, and, yes, Shodekeh puts his beats behind the Sacred Harp stylings of local trio the Shapenote Sisters.

The roots of this unusual bill extend back four years, wrapped around the Creative Alliance's annual Fusion hip-hop event. Fusion, according to CA education coordinator and Hip-Hop on the Mountain co-organizer Karen Summerville, is bringing hip-hop together with other disciplines and genres, from visual art to reggae. Given this Urban/Appalachian series, it made sense to try to pair hip-hop with the music of Appalachia.

"We saw a lot of similarities in the music," Summerville says by phone from her Creative Alliance office. "The banjo is an instrument that was derived out of Africa. Percussive sounds are common in both. The driving rhythms. The [importance] of dance to both of those genres of music. It just seemed like a really interesting collaboration."

Once she started calling people and floating the idea, she found plenty of receptive ears. "Oddly enough, a lot of the performers that are on the bill have either wanted to see each other perform or wanted to perform with each other," she says. "They have all been searching for ways to bring different crowds together, ways to . . . be in a new space, a new environment."

The Shapenote Sisters' Carly Goss certainly jumped at the chance to work with Shodekeh. She organized the shape-note sing he attended, and had been tantalized by the possibilities raised by his visit. "It kind of seems inappropriate to invite someone [to] come in and beatbox for what is a religious experience for some people," she says over lunch in a Mount Vernon café. "With the Shapenote Sisters, it makes more sense. For me, personally, I'm interested in it in terms of sounds. I know the kind of sounds that Shodekeh can make, and I know the kind of sounds we can make, and I'm interested to see them come together."

A fiber artist by vocation, the 27-year-old Massachusetts-born Goss has made something of a sideline out of shape-note advocacy, having come to the music as a folk-music-loving high-schooler. When the long-standing monthly shape-note sing in Baltimore wasn't enough, she organized her own weekly sing in 2004. She has performed shape-note singing at the Creative Alliance before, as part of the Round the Mountain series of acoustic roots-music concerts. Last year, she enlisted Kathy Fahey and Patty Berry to form the Shapenote Sisters to perform outside the weekly sings. "We all can produce a lot of volume, and we can get pretty rowdy in certain contexts, but most of the singing we've done together is quieter," she says. "We try to dial it down so we can really tune into each other."

The process of the disparate artists on the Hip-Hop on the Mountain bill tuning into each other was "pretty seamless," Summerville says, as unexpected connections kept popping up. At a meeting for the performers, a Footworks Dance Ensemble dancer demonstrated Appalachian clogging. "It reminded me of stepping, both in the sense of line-dancing but also sorority and fraternity stepping," Summerville says. "And it also has a tap vibe too. It's really percussive, it's a hard sound--it just seems like a natural fit for a hip-hop aesthetic."

It remains to be seen how natural the fit will be onstage, but Hip-Hop on the Mountain promises to leave no recombinant possibility unexplored as the Footworks cloggers share the boards with the Funky Rhythm Junky Crew breakdancers while the 5th L and OOH of Brown F.I.S.H. add their words to the proceedings, all to the soundtrack of Booman's twanged-up ones and twos. And Shodekeh is looking forward to putting what he does together with what the Shapenote Sisters do. After all, there are yet more connections to be explored.

"There's this vocal tradition called 'eefing,'" he says. "It's the vocal percussion of the Appalachian tradition, and some of the sounds and techniques remind me of beatboxing. Vocal percussion has been manifested in just about every culture in the world in some form or fashion. It'll be a performance, but it'll also be a research project."

Which is not to say it won't be fun. After all, Shodekeh says, the biggest similarity hip-hop and Appalachian music share "is that they're a celebration, no matter the moment."

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