Simon Shlomo Kahn was not even born when the first generation of New York hip-hop artists pioneered the "human beatbox" craze in the early 1980s. A classically trained percussionist from Buckinghamshire, the 25-year-old Kahn has not only revived this arcane skill but raised it to a whole new level of acrobatic virtuosity that has earned him invitations to work with Björk, Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker, the Mighty Boosh and others.
Kahn unveiled his latest collaboration last week at the Southbank Centre, where he is artist in residence. Billed as a "beatboxing adventure" combining music, dance and drama, Boxed was an almost wordless urban fairytale composed entirely from a capella sound effects generated live by Khan and his dozen-strong Vocal Orchestra. This young, multiracial crew deployed their voices in witty and complementary ways, not just to simulate drum beats but also strings, guitars, keyboards and even the sounds of a classical orchestra tuning up.
During one impressive scene, several cast members transformed themselves into a set of turntables, then a human drum kit. Between replicating the noises of passing cars, underground stations, bubbling test tubes and vibrating mobile phones, they mimicked the jerky movements and shuddering sounds of a DVD in pause and rewind mode. Clever stuff.
The underlying drama was a generic cautionary tale of rival inner-city youth tribes that felt at times like West Side Story crossed with Scooby Doo. Kahn himself played the hapless antihero, Lonely Joe, a young everyman misfit looking for acceptance in a stylised London cityscape full of hoodies, graffiti and tower blocks.
It could easily have been corny and earnest, but the goofy time-travelling plot was really just a shamelessly contrived vehicle to showcase the Vocal Orchestra's full range as they recreated landmark pop hits from each decade in forensic detail: disco and funk from the 1970s, vintage hip-hop from the 1980s, grunge and Britpop from the 1990s.
Does it matter that the Knack's New Wave classic My Sharona and Salt-N-Pepa's saucy rap anthem Push It were each released four years later than the date assigned to them in Boxed? Only to pedantic pop trainspotters such as me, I suspect. Either way, the all-vocal versions of Stevie Wonder's Superstition and OutKast's Hey Ya! were both roaring, rousing show-stoppers.
This was an effervescent, energetic, audience-grabbing show, much more enjoyable than the latest overhyped indie-rock darlings or creaky jukebox musical.Shlomo and his Orchestra brightened up an icy January night with their weapons of mass percussion.
Shlomo is at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, SE1, with his Concerto for Beatboxer and Orchestra, on Feb 19 and 20