CREATIVE EXPRESSION: DRUMMER
INTERVIEW AND NARRATIVE BY KENNEDY GACHIRI
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SARAH DE BURGH
“I remember a few years ago, I had the opportunity to perform with the Brooklyn Philharmonic with Erykah Badu. [After our] last performance…I had a chance to talk to her. And she said, ‘You are the heartbeat of the operation.’ The drums is definitely the heartbeat,” Jonathan Barber says. “It’s like giving life to somebody. You can think of any of your favorite…songs and once that drumbeat is playing, it brings you to a space, or a vibe, or a mood. …As far as vibrations, rhythm is everything. This world revolves around rhythm. The earth. Waves. Nature. It all has a rhythmic pulse or function. …You can’t get any deeper than that,” he adds. Jonathan occupies elite space in the global drumming world. He is known by the hashtag #DrumsAroundTheWorld and it is a fitting label for someone with an international vision for his artistry. Jonathan is the incumbent winner of the 2018 “Up & Coming” Modern Drummer Readers Poll. We meet at a coffee shop in Harlem, New York, to go deep on what drumming means to him.
When did Jonathan know that drumming was his path? “Well, it began with my father. Jon Barber Junior. …He played the drums in church and so that was my introduction to connecting to music as a spiritual thing,” Jonathan starts. He continues, “…At the improvisational level there’s a strong connection [to spirit]. …At the time, the church we attended was my uncle’s church…and it was at a YMCA. You had to bring all the equipment to the YMCA and so I was like his roadie. And I would help and pack up and set up. I was so hands on with the instrument in terms of knowing the function of every piece. And then [my dad] would go home and set up the drums as if it [were] furniture. So we’d have a couch, a T.V., and then we’d have a drum set there. So that’s what I thought. You can just be a kid, watch T.V., and you can also play drums. So I was nurturing this hobby…I used to play his drums to records. …Once I got to high school, my mom found a summer job where I attended a summer music camp…and that was my real introduction to jazz.” This all set Jonathan on a path to drumming around the world.
“I started using [the hashtag] #drumsaroundtheworld for Instagram while I was in Amsterdam. …I was playing and posted a picture of a sign and it just hit me, ‘Drums Around The World.’ After a while, I [continued using] it and everyone was like ‘Drums Around the World Hashtag!’ I didn’t realize that I was actually branding myself and it’s been cool as something people can identify with. And it’s also been cool for me. And motivating. OK, drums around the world. I’m maximizing my gift on a global level,” Jonathan says. What does it take to fully maximize one’s gift? “Recognizing and knowing what your gift is, is the first part. We are all here to serve in some capacity. For me, it’s music. I remember growing up in my career and I began to get new revelations on just what my gift could do…I can play drums and make music. I can play drums and do shows. I can do drums and go to school for music. I can travel on a local and international level. And then I can put out music at a local, national, and international level. So, for me, it’s constantly growing and you have to find ways to maximize your gift in terms of how much it can do for you. …It’s something that’s constantly morphing and growing and evolving,” he adds.
Vision Ahead in Jonathan’s first album and is a self-release with no backing from a label. “You have to invest in yourself all the way. All the way. Because when it recoups, you can receive everything. …The single [in Vision Ahead] is called ‘Airport.’ It has a double meaning. I wrote lyrics for the song and I’m also singing on it…it’s like a chant. It talks about positivity and living life to the fullest. It reminds me of an airport. An airport is a hub of all these people coming in to this one place to venture to different destinations with a purpose. If you’re seeing family, [or if] you’re going for work, or for business. You’re in the sky in this high realm. I took that as [a metaphor] for how to live my life. High level. With a purpose. And being able to go from place to place and take culture but also give culture,” Jonathan says. How did Jonathan go about financing this venture? Was he saving up ahead of time? “I started saving my touring checks starting in 2011. As a musician, tours are substantial. That’s where the money is. So I built up a good savings out of touring. I told my parents that I’m saving and they asked me what for. At the time I didn’t know. But I was saving. Then once I knew I wanted to do a record then this was it. It helped,” he says.
What went into creating Jonathan’s first album? Why this album? Why now? “We all have a vision for what we want to do. And who we want to be, and it’s for an appointed time. It might not hit the date for when you want it to happen, but it will happen …Sometimes we want the fame, and we want the success, and some of us can’t handle it right now. We may need to mature and grow into some things so that we can receive the blessing,” he says. Jonathan continues, “In November 2016, I lost my brother. It was an unexpected death. He had multiple seizures. …In December and January, I went to Virginia where he lived with his family. And I was just there. Cancelled my whole schedule and started living there for a little bit. And then the idea of Vision Ahead came to me. I was in his house thinking and the words came to me. Vision. Ahead. You can’t erase [‘devastating experiences’], but you can carry on from [them]. …[They] bring another color to your picture and you carry on from it. So, that really birthed the concept. …2017 is when I did most of my writing. Prior to November 2016 I had written two songs. After that, it was a therapeutic thing,” Jonathan says. Are there any specific tracks that particularly speak to his brother? “Well, most of them. There’s one called, ‘Crown.’ Heard the melody while I was in the subway and thought about it and wrote it down. There’s a song called, ‘Gone Away.’ Most of it relates to [grieving] and it’s about carrying on. While you still have breath in this body. …Because, I’m still here. And I have to still live within my purpose. My brother was thirty-three and he was young, but he lived his purpose. He did what he had to do. Now I have to make sure that I’m doing what I have to do,” he concludes.
The sense of purpose and spirit does indeed shine through in Jonathan’s drumming. Its genesis? “Watching my dad play in church and knowing that I was in service of. In church, there is singing and you are playing to a song. And seeing what that song does for people. Bringing hope. Or bringing joy. Or shedding light on a situation or circumstance. Seeing people be blessed by that was WOW…what an honor to be in that position to help others through music. And then just improvising through playing jazz and hav[ing] that ability to act off the moment. It shows this force. It reveals itself as this is bigger than all of us. Serving music,” Jonathan says. “Even connecting it to the drums. I believe that besides the human voice, [drums were] one of the first instruments known to man. Most of the time, the drums were a form of communication. A call to order… With the vibrations…it’s definitely a deep connection to humanity,” he adds. Jonathan has experienced this feeling of deep connectedness in his playing. “You can play in a band and you and your band members can do the exact same thing at exactly the same time…[and it] wasn’t planned. How did that happen? Being on the same wavelength or frequency?…it shows that this is bigger than all of us. When people come together as a group, that’s when the power manifests,” he adds.
Jonathan’s father, despite being a drummer, played a noninterventionist role in letting him choose his vocation. “My dad was hands-on but he also let me figure things out on my own. So the fact that he was a drummer people thought that he probably put [me] on a serious schedule and every day he give [me] a lesson. No, it was the complete opposite. He let me run through his collection and find whatever I wanted to find and play whatever I wanted to play,” Jonathan says. His father did impart some wisdom as well. “He definitely instilled in me good lessons in terms of playing with passion. [For example,] it doesn’t matter if you’re in a room of five people or five thousand people. If you can at least touch one soul…you’ve served a purpose. Stuff like that, I hold on to, to this day. Definitely tell a story and try to move people. Give people an experience,” he says. Are there some tenets that Jonathan turns to when it comes to storytelling? “First and foremost is simplicity. It’s like living life. Sometimes living life in a simple way… Musically, repetition [is key]. Building an idea. If the musical idea is this phrase, how to build around that? And finally, dynamics. It’s like in a movie, suspense can happen if someone is playing loud or really soft,” Jonathan concludes.
How would Jonathan describe his overall vibe as a storyteller on drums? “As a musician, I am always trying to be on the edge. …I always want to play music at a high level. I never just want to lollygag. …I am definitely in the moment. Musically, I love the freedom that improvisation carries and I love the nuance. It’s like those experiences that you just had to be there for. …You just have to be there to witness the moment. …I am an in the moment guy. I appreciate the past and…I have a future and I definitely put things out there for the future. But I always want to take care of the now. Sometimes we get caught up in, ‘Back in the day this happened…and we live in the glory days. Or let’s wait five years and I’m going to be somebody.’ …What about right now? Because right now there’s a lot going on and a lot that can be done,” Jonathan says. And how does he foster that? This dedication to being in the present? “I am constantly learning that. You fight with some doubt. Like with [Vision Ahead] there were times that I was confident that I would do this record. And sometimes I was like should I have done this or done that? …You have to be confident in yourself, and understand this is what I have and this is what I am going to give. And this is my best intention. I try to foster being present by believing in myself and knowing I have good intentions and I can’t ask for anything more. If I give everything I have then I can’t give anything more. If I give all that I have that’s the best thing that I can ask for myself,” he says.
Finally, what advice can Jonathan provide for someone looking to live a life of intention and pursue his or her calling as a creative being? “Once you know what you’re good at, and feel like you know what you are gifted in, take time to research it to understand what industry you will be dealing in. …Once you figure out the industry, take time to research and learn the who’s who. Who are the successful ones and at what rate? Is everyone successful or is it super hard? How is that person successful? …What does it take? Because it takes more than just talent. You have to gel well with people. You have to make yourself available. Just be around. Be seen. Also, be professional. Be reliable. Know that people can count on you. …Are you in the right location? Allowing yourself for the opportunity,” Jonathan says. Does he consider that everyone is an artist or does this term only apply to a special class? “Everyone is subjected to art. Everyone has the luxury to create. Everyone is an artist but there’s a level of artistry that separates the kids from the adults. Everyone can create but there’s a level of artistry…for example, there’s one Picasso. We all have the ability to create, but there’s a difference in the level of artistry [that distinguishes] that’s a rapper, that’s a drummer, that’s a pianist, that’s a journalist… Some people are really gifted in certain [forms],” he concludes.