Sing the Body Electric

We’ve got music deep in our bones, says Rachel Bagby.

‘In the physical body,’ she says, ‘there are many different
levels of pulsings, and if you touch various parts of the body, you
can feel a syncopated kind of rhythm, if you’ve developed a
sensitivity to it.

‘So we’re already walking around in a polyrhythmic kind of way.
Music is an art form for recognizing the vibe that is the ground of
life — this kind of rhythmic reality.’

Bagby explores this reality in a career so expansive that even
multiple labels fail to capture its breadth — singer, composer,
writer, activist, and teacher Bagby lives at Singing Farm, an
organic farm and learning community she founded in Virginia. Along
with singing in Bobby McFerrin’s famed a cappella ensemble
Voicestra and recording a 1993 album of chant songs, Full
(Outta the Box), she’s the author of Divine Daughters, a
memoir that traces her struggle to (quite literally) find her voice
and come into her own as an artist.

She’s got a degree in law and social change from Stanford Law
School and often gives talks and conducts workshops on helping
people express themselves. What ties it all together is vibe: the
continuum of sound that surrounds us, encompassing voice and music
but also much more, from those bodily pulsings to burbling creeks
to ‘the rumbling of elephants across long distances,’ she says.

Bagby has even invented a word, vibralingua, to
describe the ability to hear, process, and effectively use sound

‘Being vibralingual is related to being multilingual, except
that you’re reading vibe instead of a language,’ she says. A
vibralingual person’s abilities can range from everyday skills such
as recognizing a ‘hmmmm’ response in conversation as important
information to extraordinary talents such as composing choral works
for 50 to 70 voices, as Bagby does. And as you might guess, many
musicians are vibralingually adept.

But Bagby, a high-profile activist on peace and social justice
issues, has made it a personal cause to help people find their
voices — musically and in other ways. ‘I believe that if you can
talk, you can carry a tune,’ she declares, noting that some people
have been silenced not just as singers but as human beings.

Bagby suggests several practical steps to open up stifled voices
and make more musical and vibralingual connections in our

  • Look for a chorus in your community that’s singing music that
    speaks to you and try being ‘a voice among many.’
  • Turn off the TV, get together with a group of friends, and sing
    children’s songs for an evening. Include kids in the
  • Support local choruses by attending performances.
  • For teachers and parents: Encourage children to sing, and don’t
    worry so much about pitch.
  • Spend as much time as possible around water. Listen to the
    ‘water song’ and match tones with the water.

In her workshops, Bagby takes an example of a current concern —
violence among nations — and elicits suggestions for practical
steps to address that concern. Teaching peace to children emerges
as a first step. She then works up a simple two-note melody that
she sings in a beautiful, lilting voice: ‘Teach the children
pea-eace, teach the children peace.’

‘That’s something you can carry around with you to keep that
thought,’ she says.

Bagby is well aware that nothing is quite so disarming as music,
and she has been known to hum or break into song to defuse tense
situations — when she sees a parent being rough with a child, for
example, or when she’s taking part in political protest.

‘If there’s a gentleman standing in front of you in an officer’s
uniform with a gun, and you’d like him to move so that you can
exercise your right to speak your mind, say, in front of the White
House, if you just say, ‘Move out of my way,’ it wouldn’t be the
same thing as singing to him,’ she says.

For more information about Bagby’s work, e-mail, or write Rachel Bagby, Singing Farm, Box
5101, Charlottesville, VA 22905.

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