It’s just one man and microphone (and sometimes, it’s just the man) but from his body all manner of percussive sounds spill out. He seems almost unable to contain them, unselfconsciously punctuating conversation about his musical skill with impromptu examples of how breath and throat and mouth can substitute for an entire drum kit or even the DJ.
You could call Shodekeh (a.k.a. Dominic Earle Shodekeh Talifero) a beatboxer or a vocal percussionist, if you want to feel a little more refined about it. But what the Baltimore-based musician seems to be more than anything is a chameleon, breathing out entire rhythm and bass tracks and blending them into a borderless range of performance situations. Armed with an attention-grabbing talent and a laid-back charm, he has shared stages with hip hop artists, ballet dancers, and jazz musicians all over the country. This summer he’ll take a bow with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Even Roger Ebert is a fan.
Shodekeh finds a very beneficial exchange of ideas in this promiscuous genre-hopping. “I like to be challenged,” he explains. “It pushes me more, as a person who’s looking to always up the ante in regards to my musicianship.” With no formal musical training, he admits that he may initially have been seeking validation from other realms of music, but these days he’s simply looking to push himself and others in their creative artistry. It’s a strategy he finds makes for a good learning experience all around.
Though plenty of young beatboxers find inspiration listening to the records of big-name artists like Doug E. Fresh and Rahzel (formerly of The Roots), Shodekeh says that the skills are just as likely to be passed on informally through a friend, a brother, or even a fellow beatboxer met by chance at a party. “Most of the time it’s a very organic, personal thing,” he says. “It’s definitely the kind of tradition where it’s one man’s journey or one woman’s journey. It’s kind of like learning how to cook just from hanging out in the kitchen with your mother.”
When the tricks and skills of the trade are mastered, there also seems to be a kind of magician’s ethics in play. In an interview, Shodekeh is careful not to “give away” the methods and ideas behind the signature sounds of other artists. He does, however, seem to take a particular delight in the informal and impromptu skill-sharing that can happen when your instrument is always available, whether that’s performing with new voices at an improv session or breaking down the fourth wall and getting the audience in on creating the beats.
In his own work, Shodekeh does not use any formal notation system, but he does point out how alphabet notation combined with some algebraic rules could convey ideas fairly efficiently. He does have pieces, in a sense, or perhaps what might be better characterized as cadenzas that he has composed and perfected structurally and can mix into a live performance, but plenty of room remains in his sets for improvisation and that’s a vital part of the equation in his mind. He explains that the approach “allows for a moment to really, truly exist. It’s just like a jazz concert. You have the springboard that’s written but you don’t know what’s going to happen in the middle, and that’s the beauty of it.”
Though he also loves the work he does now as faculty accompanist for Towson University’s dance department as well as at the American Dance Festival at Duke University, Shodekeh is hesitant to take his work too deeply into the academy and formalize in that way. “I think it can exist organically anywhere,” he says, “but I don’t like the idea of teaching it in an academic setting. Not everything has to be institutionalized.”
Still, education and experimentation are central to his work. Shodekeh’s most recent project, Embody, seeks to bring together a broad range of vocal artists under one umbrella and put what was once his more private pursuit of genre exploration front and center on the stage. A recent performance under this headline showcased a throat singer, an operatically trained vocalist, and of course Shodekeh’s personal brand of vocal percussion. He points out that “there is a lot of experimentation in beatboxing, actually a big part of it is nothing but experimentation. So I’m really interested in seeing how these realms can fuse with one another.”
His ideas for cross-collaboration don’t stop there. “I would love to see a professional whistler with a throat singer, or a beatboxer with a yodeler,” he suggests. “I think we all have a lot to learn from one another.”