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."
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.
Shodekeh left the babysitter's home and walked 10 minutes up the street to hang out with some other kids his age. One of them heard Shodekeh beatboxing earlier, and wanted to hear what he could do. Shy at first, Shodekeh reluctantly agreed. His beatboxing, though rudimentary in reflection, was good enough to impress the other kids. In an instant, Shodekeh earned a measure of respect from one of his peers, which is probably why that memory has stuck with him for 20 years, he said.
Shodekeh studied TV production in Suitland High School's visual performing arts program. Early on, he began impersonating cartoon characters for fun - especially Kermit and Miss Piggy from Muppet Babies. He came up with a mock argument between the two characters backed by beats he'd make with his voice, said his high school classmate, Clarence Flemming. It was an early example of Shodekeh's talents, he said.
By his senior year, vocal percussion was becoming a larger part of Shodekeh's life. His beatboxing abilities had grown noticeably by graduation, Flemming said.
"There was definitely an improvement from the beginning to the end of high school," Flemming said. "He just did it so much he got pretty good at it."
After high school, Shodekeh beatboxed so much that everything else took a back seat. For years, Shodekeh switched majors several times and bounced in and out of colleges such as Penn State and Coppin. While he performed on the radio, a cappella and with other beatboxers, he failed as many classes as he passed, he said.
"I've never been a very academic student," he says. "I've always been a gut-based, hands-on, learn-from-experience sort of student."
While his grades plummeted, his art matured. Performing with an a cappella group gave Shodekeh the freedom to vocally reproduce instruments such as bass, cymbals, high hats and drums in an unfamiliar genre for him: rock music.
"That allowed me to explore the creative side of composing rhythms and making compositional choices," Shodekeh said. "I feel like that really tuned my ear a lot."
Shodekeh was making music, but he wasn't making money. He cleaned tables at a Panera Bread location in Pennsylvania, waited on tables at the Downtown Sports Exchange in Baltimore and worked as a doorman for a strip club on The Block.
The turning point for Shodekeh's musical career came early last year, when he performed at poetry night at a coffeeshop and caught the attention of Vincent Thomas, an assistant professor of dance at Towson University.
"My first instinct was to get up and start dancing," Thomas said of hearing Shodekeh perform. "But I also saw so many possibilities of movement through his beatboxing."
Thomas was so impressed with the authenticity and physicality of Shodekeh's beats that he invited him to accompany his modern dance class in the spring of 2006. As a paid accompanist, Shodekeh was turning a regular paycheck off his art for the first time in his life. He also beatboxed for a ballet class there - a stark contrast from the class's usual piano accompaniment.
"You can imagine how startling a possibility that is or was or would be for the ballet environment," Thomas said. "How great that art can do that. For art to turn art upside down on itself is an exciting thing."
The enthusiastic response he got at Towson motivated Shodekeh to reach out to other colleges in the area. About a year and a half ago, Shodekeh e-mailed Richards about accompanying some of his classes. Even though Shodekeh had worked with Thomas, Richards was nervous at first to bring him in.
"My concern was the musical training," Richards said. "Can he keep up with the counts? Can he keep up with the structure of the class that the teacher has to have to create a good class."
Richards' concerns faded after the first session.
"Not only does he keep up with it, he completely vibes with it."
A dedicated and persistent self-promoter, Shodekeh constantly puts out feelers for potential gigs.
When he recently applied for Creative Alliance's residency program, he gave artistic director Jedd Dodds several back issues of the organization's newsletters. In them, he had inserted sticky notes and highlighters to mark all the past programs where his skills would apply.
"He could have accompanied this, he could have been a teacher on that, a promoter for this, and he could have helped publicize that," Dodds said.
That unfettered ambition and musical flexibility helped persuade Dodds to award Shodekeh one of the building's eight studio apartments. Shodekeh has the option of renewing the lease for two more years. He's the first musician to be a part of the program, which normally attracts artists who have completed a graduate degree, Dodds said.
"He is just overflowing with ideas and has such positive energy," Dodds said. "It's just infectious. There's nothing that he won't try. He's totally unafraid."
As a former break dancer, Richards can relate to Shodekeh's struggle against the public's perception of his calling.
"I think that all art is valid," he said. "We all have something to offer. I think Shodekeh is a great ambassador for that."
Yet as Shodekeh immerses himself in his art, he feels as though the spark that initially attracted him to beatboxing is slightly dimming. He is drained from relentless gigging to pay his bills.
"You know what it feels like? It feels like I had a girlfriend and I married her," he said.
Shodekeh still has moments that remind him why he stuck with beatboxing for so long - most notably during the dance classes. They help him persist, he said.
"Seeing people move to your music in such a disciplined and committed way - it creates inspiration," he said.
To see the beatboxer
See Shodekeh perform with the Ed Schrader Show at 9 p.m. Thursday at the Metro Gallery, 1700 N. Charles St. $5. For more information, go to myspace.com/metrogallery.
For a complete list of Shodekeh's future shows, go to myspace.com/shodekeh.