By Matt Robinson/JNS.org
Having started his career playing on his family’s pots and pans, Jewish musician Billy Jonas has maintained this homemade performance ethic while spreading his messages of simple living and environmentalism to a shared home throughout the world.
After beginning in the kitchen, Jonas soon moved to the music room, where he picked up the piano, guitar, and trombone. These days, the multi-talented multi-instrumentalist plays on with pretty much anything he can find, including cans, bottles buckets, and other recycled-object instruments of creativity.
When fans come to Jonas’s concerts, they often find a stage strewn with what at first appears to be a pile of refuse. From oil drums to an empty soda can to five-gallon water bottles, Jonas takes pride in making treasures out of others’ trash.
“I can’t help but smile and get happy when I hear a frying pan played well,” he says, noting his passion for “sounds, forms, and subject matters that are off the beaten track.”
But soon after Jonas and The Billy Jonas Band take the stage, the novelty wears off.
“I find that the spectacle appeal of these instruments disappears wears off after about 10 minutes,” Jonas says. “Then, people tend to focus on the songs and stories that I’m presenting, which is the heart of what I do. The goal of the songs, and my concerts, is to connect people—to themselves, to others, and to the great beyond.”
Jonas also aims to weave a connection to the natural world into his songs and shows.
“I think everybody now understands the importance of environmental stewardship and recycling,” he says. “Instead of singing about that directly, my instruments broadcast that implicitly. This leaves room to address other aspects of tikkun olam (repairing the world), soul-mining, and spiritual spelunking.”
Jonas and his band also love to explore the fundamental roots of Jewish music.
“We like finding the essence of a song, or a prayer,” he says. “This is often best revealed through the most simple, primal musical elements of voices and drums.”
While his musically inclined family encouraged his early explorations of music, Jonas also credits his childhood cantor with inspiring his inspiring path.
“I remember going to synagogue during this time and listening to Cantor Abraham Lubin, and being awestruck by the beauty and power of his voice,” Jonas says of the legendary chazzan of Congregation Rodfei Zedek and Anshe Emet Synagogue, both in Chicago, as well as Congregation Beth El of Bethesda, Md.
Lubin’s melodies, many of them part of a weekly Hebrew school repertoire, “went to a very deep place” and became “an intimate part” of Jonas’s future music, he says. Jonas also says the structure of Jewish liturgical music had a profound impact on him—so profound that his latest project is a collection of liturgically inspired songs called “Ten Days: Songs for a Jewish Vision Quest,” to be released in the spring of 2015.
In addition to songs and musical reinterpretations of prayers like “Modeh Ani” and “Ma’ariv Aravim,” Jonas takes his turn at Shlomo Carlebach’s “Return Again,” and offers a few originals such as “Holy Man” and the illuminating anthem “Let There Be Light.” As usual, Jonas’s words and music borrow elements from his environs.
“I’m inspired by everything, but what excites me most is finding a way to amplify the sacred dimensions of even the most mundane experiences,” he says.
Jonas says a further “sacred dimension” is added to the music when a live audience is listening.
“With certain participatory songs, as the audience sings along or calls out, they spontaneously become an organism and experience the dissolution of their separateness from each other,” he says. “I love that!”
Asked what inspired this particular collection, Jonas goes back to the synagogue—not in Chicago, but in his current home.
“I have enjoyed working with my local synagogue,” says the resident of Asheville, N.C., who participates in and often co-leads prayers at Congregation Beth HaTephila in that city. “In doing that, I began to create my own versions of songs and prayers that felt closer to my heart than some—though not all—of the traditional, more standard versions.”
Through working with bar and bat mitzvah students as well as other congregants at Beth HaTephila, Jonas discovered his own passion for prayers that he and others felt were not engaging with as seriously strongly as he felt they could. He describes finding places in services “where there were some missed opportunities for a deeper connection to, or understanding of, a particular moment.”
“I’ve been having fun filling in the gaps in prayers as I perceive them,” Jonas says.