It's the rare performer with equal appeal to adults as well as children, and Billy Jonas is one of them. His brand of "bangin' and sangin'" -- in which whimsical songs are sung to the accompaniment of found, nontraditional percussion instruments -- is guaranteed to keep the young ones interested and the adults' toes tapping.
While it sounds like something anyone can do, this well-trained percussionist -- his mentors have included worldbeat standouts Glen Velez and the late Babatunde Olatunji -- is world-class in expertise and ability. At this year's Savannah Music Festival, Jonas will perform his signature "What Kind of Cat Are You" low-cost show for all-age audiences.
We had an e-mail exchange with Jonas while he was on a performance tour in the Middle East.
Describe the decision behind wanting to perform for younger audiences as opposed to the more traditional musical route.
Billy Jonas: I love both, and do both. Often at festivals my ensemble and I present an evening adult oriented/general audience show with more emotionally complex or musically intricate material, that allows us to stretch out. Then during the day we get to invite everyone to sing along and participate in a funky family folk "neo-tribal hootenanny." It's like cross training. We are the biathaletes of folk music.
As far as more or less traditional routes to take - there is no such thing! We all do what we do what we do, and then discover what feeds others, and where doors open. How we discover and pursue the opportunities that we discover, or that discover us, is as varied as the individuals who are out there being creative.
Sometimes I think "I need to write more of THIS kind of song, for THIS audience.." And sometimes I do. Mostly, I am present to the inspirations that bubble up, and tell myself: "Billy - just write the songs. Nevermind about who it's for or whether it seems like it will or won't work in a particular context." those kinds of worries are the kinds of things that cause writers block and unnecessary sludge in the creative process. So I write the songs, and then they reveal who they are for. There are many songs on my most recent cd "happy Accidents" that were intended for one audience demographic and found a home with a different one. For instance "To Be One," was a song I dreamed. I assumed it was for adults, and it works in that context. Slowly it revealed itself as fine song for family audiences as well, especially with the addition of sign language.
Tell us about your recent trip to the Middle East.
Billy Jonas: I spent 3 months this year on a sabbatical/walkabout in Israel and The Westbank/Occupied Territories. During this time I reconstituted my Hebrew abilities, and began to learn Arabic, with the intention of being a cultural bridge-builder. My greatest discovery was that I'm not alone - there are literally 1000's of both Israeli's and folks from the international community who are intent on creating person-to-person connections, in the interest of healing and peace-making. It's incredibly heartening to know that there is a groundswell of energy and interest, albeit below the radar of the international press, towards finding grassroots solutions.
Describe the influence of Glen Velez and the late, great Babatunde Olatunji on your percussive style and musical and cultural outlook.
Billy Jonas: Babatunde Olatunji inspired me musically, with his mastery of complex African polyrhythms and songs - but more than that, he inspired me with his energy and spirit. I remember once being in a room of about 100 people, all playing a 2 part rhythm he taught us moments before, and it was chaos, and he said "STOP! YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU ARE DOING!" We were all embarrassed, until he continued: "You have no idea what is the effect of all of you drumming together, where this energy is going and how it is serving the world. Your efforts here may be moving healing energy in a far away place, and you may never know.." It was a profound moment for me, and everyone there, and put all our efforts in a whole new context much bigger than the present moment.
Glen Velez revealed to me the exquisite subtlety possible with middle eastern hand drumming - especially the richness of playing softly. He models such patience and quiet perseverance. He was also amazing to record with, and I learned much observing his quick creativity and fearless exploration, all the while focused and professional.
Has the Stomp phenomenon had an effect, positive or negative, on your career? Do people ever say, "Oh, you got that idea from Stomp?"
Billy Jonas: I love Stomp. We began at the same time, independently, in the mid 1980's. I think what they have done has helped open peoples minds and ears to all manner of percussive possibility and sonic surprise, and I appreciate it!
Is it even possible to sit behind a traditional drum kit after you've been doing what you've been doing?
Billy Jonas: I've tried a couple of times. I prefer homemade and found object percussion. More exciting, more magic, for me.
Is Asheville still a haven for progressive, vaguely countercultural artists? What's that scene like these days?
Billy Jonas: Absolutely - come check it out! There's always folks here pushing the creative envelope and looking for the cutting edge.. Recently this has manifested in the recording studios that have chosen to make their homes in Asheville. Its not limited to music though. There are vibrant ceramics, sculpture, fiber arts and painting communities here always making amazing stuff. On a recent "River Arts District Studio Stroll" I discovered an incredible local painter, Barbara Fisher, who donated some of her pieces for my "Happy Accidents" cd (you can see it at www.billyjonas.com and find her at www.barbarafisher.com). I love being amidst and a part of all the creativity in Asheville.
Savannah Music Festival: Billy Jonas and "What Kind of Cat Are You?"
When: 7 p.m. Tue. March 31
Where: Trustees Theatre
Cost: $10 adults, $5 under 12