Billy Jonas: Creating Much More Than Music
By Lauren Rosenfeld
This summer, when Western North Carolina plays host to some of the world’s most talented and creative percussionists for the Asheville Percussion Festival, you’ll find Asheville’s own Billy Jonas, surrounded by children and parents, as he turns everyday objects into musical instruments in his signature Bangin and sangin’ 101 workshop for families. Billy has a way of turning the ordinary into the wondrous; of turning the doldrums into joy. I know, because I have personally experienced Billy Jonas’ brand of transformational musical magic.
There was a time, about a decade ago – before my family made Asheville our mountain home – that I spent hours each and every day idling in Atlanta traffic with my four young children quibbling and complaining in the seats behind me. As we inched our way toward the grocery or school or pediatric dentist, what often made the journey bearable was the company of Billy Jonas. Well, not Billy himself of course but his music, emanating through the speakers, reminding us that despite our immediate (and tedious) circumstances, there was joy and wonder in the world. As I sat impatiently behind the wheel, watching a river of brake lights moving ahead of us at a sluggish crawl, it was Billy Jonas’ clever questions in his song, What Kind of Cat are You?!, that quelled screeches of, “He’s touching me!” and warded off the inevitable cries of, “Are we there yet?”
What kind of cat hangs out in your house? Billy would sing.
“House cat!” my children would yell in glee.
What kind of cat hangs out in an alley? Billy would prompt.
“Alley cat!” my children would shout in return.
The song’s questions and their accompanying answers would become more and more complex (Caterpillar! Cadillac! Catastrophe!). They’d build into a fever pitch until the final tour de force question made its inevitable appearance in the song.
What kind of cat is connected to the engine of your car? Billy would wonder aloud.
“Catalytic converter!!” my kids called out with a certain self-satisfaction. Of course, they had answered it hundreds of times, over as many miles, yet it never took away their delight in knowing.
I had to smile. The boredom had been broken. Our hearts were singing. And it seemed that even the car was humming along.
The Birth of a Beloved Song and Faith in the Creative Process
I sat down to talk with Billy recently in the conference room of Asheville’s Congregation Beth HaTephila, the Reform Jewish synagogue where (in addition to secular concerts he performs around the country) Billy serves on the sacred music team. We talked about the creative process that led to the creation of What Kind of Cat are You?!
“The seed of What Kind of Cat are You?! was first planted around a midnight campfire at an Aboriginal Arts workshop in Helen, Georgia,” Billy recalls. “We just started this silly word game about what kind of cat does this or that – while a guitar twiddled in the background.
‘What kind of cat hangs out in a copy shop?’ one person would ask. ‘A copy cat!’ someone else would answer. ‘What kind of cat is really, really scared? A scared-y cat!’
“For two years I ran on the fumes of the original inspiration of that song. I tried out different versions at concerts – and it didn’t work. The audiences just didn’t respond with the enthusiasm I’d anticipated. It was the energetic low point of every concert. But I didn’t give up on it. I kept reworking it. I went on faith that the idea was solid that and that this was a really good song.”
According to Billy, sticking with what he terms ‘the vicissitudes of the creative process’ takes precisely this kind of faith and grit. And it’s this very dynamic that’s the theme of his upcoming family music album, Build it Back Again, which is due out this coming August.
“Build it Back Again is about maintaining optimism and faith in the midst of the endless oscillations of life,” he explains. “The oscillations between creation and destruction; death and rebirth; failure and success; ease and challenge; stagnation and growth.”
It would seem when you are sitting in the car, singing along to a familiar Billy Jonas song, delighting in its rhymes and rhythms, that his songs are simply born fully formed, but Billy insists this isn’t the case. “Every song I write goes through these kinds of energetic oscillations. It starts with an initial inspiration – a feeling, a phrase, or an image; a rhythm, a melody, or just an idea. Then there’s a period over the next few days that it flows and begins to manifest as a song.”
But is that where the creative process ends? “Not at all,” he says.
“Inevitably there comes a period where the flow of the idea slows down. That’s the oscillation from movement to stagnation – after the initial flow, it just sits for a while. It ruminates. It ferments. It composts.”
But where many would look at the compost as simply decay, Billy notes that this is really the rich soil in which the seed of the song will eventually come to blossom.
“Eventually, as the idea rolls around, the edges get worn off. And then it reemerges and comes to its completion.”
This was certainly the case with What Kind of Cat Are You?! – a song whose seed was planted at a campfire, that bored audiences to bits for two persistent years, and eventually emerged in full flower as the song that kept us entertained for hours in traffic, which has now come to be one of Billy’s most popular and requested songs.
This is also true of the song I Mean (The Spoonerism Song) on his upcoming album. “Eighteen years ago, I was on a phone conversation with a friend and we were playing with spoonerisms – two pairs of words where the consonant sounds are switched to create new meaning – like ‘take a shower’ and ‘shake a tower.’ Ultimately, I generated four or five times as many spoonerisms as eventually made their way into the song. I felt the spoonerisms not only had to be funny, they had to have an internal resonance and had to speak to the creative process itself – like for example, sight the wrongs and write the songs – speak to music’s ability to do what we call in the Jewish tradition tikkun olam: to heal and repair the world.”
Eighteens years. Sometimes it takes the same amount of time for an infant to grow into an adult as it takes for a song to go from seed to fruition. According to Billy, it’s well worth the wait.
It’s not just a process he sings about. It’s a process he lives, and one he teaches.
Teaching Faith to Teens
At least twice a month, you’ll find Billy in the sanctuary of Congregation Beth HaTephila, leading the congregation in song at Friday night Shabbat services. As you might expect, he’s not your traditional sacred song leader. He sings the traditional prayers with bells on his feet, evoking ancient, tribal rhythms from a hand held drum, or his signature recycled blue garbage can bass drum.
But Billy’s not just up in front of the congregation chanting prayers of praise, he’s also behind the scenes, teaching these same chants to 12 and 13 year old boys and girls as they prepare for their bar and bat mitzvahs. Yet it’s not just prayer chants he’s teaching. Typical of his style, there are profound spiritual lessons about life being imparted. Not surprisingly, Billy’s understanding of the essential power of faith in what can be a very long and challenging process is what underpins their lessons.
“My own experience with faith in the creative process helps me see what’s waiting for them beyond their hurdles. I know that if they stick with it, something wonderful will emerge, something that none of us can foresee or predict.
“Because I have seen grit and faith pay off so hugely (I mean, I’ve played at the White House on garbage cans!), I can bring the fullness of my experience, even when the process drags for them, even when they feel resistance, because I know beyond that resistance is something sacred waiting to happen.”
Sacredness, Drumming, and Bringing People Together
When Billy was studying at Oberlin College in Ohio, he and some friends decided they would create a full moon ritual. It’s a story he tells in his song, My Life So Far. To hear Billy tell it, they had no real idea what would occur. It was an overcast night, not ideal for moon viewing. Despite that, 200 people came together around a fire pit, surrounded by 40 garbage cans they’d acquired from campus. For 20 minutes, they drummed and danced around the fire. Then the music, seemingly of its own accord, came to a silence. In the stillness, these young people raised their hands to the overcast sky and began to hum, as if beckoning the moon. Suddenly the clouds parted and the full moon shone down on them.
“In that moment,” he recalls, “I realized there was something bigger than my logic going on in the Universe.”
That’s precisely the kind of faith in sacred magic Billy brings to all he does.
He’ll bring that same faith in the power of community and music to his offerings when he joins master percussionists from around the world at the Asheville Percussion Festival, from June 20th to 22nd at Diana Wortham Theater and Om Sanctuary. Billy will be leading an experiential family-friendly workshop on his signature re-percussion instruments, teaching families to make music together on found objects and to create the kinds of magic that Billy has been discovering and creating for over three decades.
And that’s the thing about Billy Jonas: whether he’s drumming under the moon, banging buckets at a concert, riffing on riddles and spoonerisms, leading a congregation in prayer, studying with teens over ancient texts, or bringing families together through the joy of music and creativity – faith blossoms and sacredness happens.
Lauren Rosenfeld is an author and inspirational speaker who teaches about finding sacred moments within the mundane details of our daily lives. She lives in Asheville with her four (now teenaged) children. Her most recent book, Breathing Room: Open Your Heart by Decluttering Your Home was published in April. She blogs at lgrosenfeld.com.