WHAT MAKES A GREAT VOICE?


Some of you may have caught me blathering on NPR’s Talk of the Nation today, talking about NPR’s 50 Great Voices campaign. For those not familiar, starting in January, NPR is going to profile, week to week, “great voices” from around the world and that list will be determined by them on the basis of 1) listener nominations and 2) a panel of folks who, to put this diplomatically, are being convened to offer an “alternative” set of opinions to balance out L.C.D. populism.

I’m honored to be on that panel but it’s been challenging since, when I think of “great voices,” the names that immediately pop to mind are hardly that left-of-field. I mean, I named my daughter after Ella so you know she’d be on my list, as would Aretha, Al, Otis, et. al.

However, the point of this project isn’t to affirm what we already know and more importantly, it is not “50 great-est voices,” merely 50 great ones. Despite appearances of canon-making/validating, that’s really not the point (even though I know most people will assume it is). Part of that has meant really trying to get away from obvious choices and in this case, “obvious” means, for the most part, American or British artists.

For example, Elis Regina keeps coming up in conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues and I know there’s a lot of sentiment running in her favor on the submissions’ site too (her Brazilian contemporary Caetano Veloso is also under consideration).

Personally, I put Fela Kuti on my list; I think his is such a distinctive, rumbling voice with seemingly no bottom – the perfect kind of voice to go with the deep, hypnotic swirls of his music. Another one of my recommendations is Alton Ellis – one of the greatest vocalists to come out of Jamaica whose blend of soul phrasings with his patois pretty much defined the sound of rocksteady and proto-reggae in my opinion.

My most left-field choice is actually American: Chuck D. I could be wrong but I’m willing to wager he’s the most sampled rapper-by-other-rappers and it’s obvious why: I dare anyone to find a more powerful, commanding, authoritative and memorable baritone than his in hip-hop. Besides, I’d love to see NPR include a rapper in their final 50 as a way to tweak all these annoying anti-rap crusaders who pollute the site with their small-mindedness.

So far, I’ve sent in 6 and am mulling over 4 more. Under consideration:
Googoosh
Kongar-Al Ondar
Freddie Mercury
Donny Hathaway

If you have other suggestions, especially for non-US/UK artists, drop your nom to NPR’s website and feel free to advocate in my comments too.

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