to Billy Jonas '87 about music and watch his serious side
appear. Not quite the reaction you'd expect from a man with bells
and drumsticks attached to his ankles and sneakers. Then again,
Jonas wasn't quite the typical Oberlin anthropology student.
"I used my major to search for the essence of
music, its core, its primal foundation," says Jonas via a crackling
cellular call during the last leg of yet another tour. It's been
15 years, and folks can't get enough of his acoustic, folk-based,
foot-stomping music made with barrels, water jugs, pails, and his
"Think Stomp-meets-Pete Seeger," says Jonas,
whose web site merchandise features a T-shirt with the phrase "Bang
His videotape, Bangin' and Sangin', a live performance,
has been praised for its originality and enthusiasm. Billy Jonas
Live, a CD for adults and general audiences, he describes as a "portrait
of a turn-of-the-21st-century neo-tribal hootenanny." His latest
sing-along CD, What Kind of Cat Are You? earned a 2002 Parent's
Choice Gold Star for its family appeal and thought-provoking lyrics.
Percussion aside, this one-man band's favorite instrument
is his audience.
"I always imagined including audience members
in my pieces so their relationship with
my music would be more intimate," he says. In 1986, he and
fellow members of the Obie-band Big Bang Theory asked students to
bring sticks to the Arboretum one night. Nearly 250 students obliged,
turning everything in sight into percussion instruments. "The
deafening sound coaxed neighbors from their homes," he says.
As the night grew, the students lit a bonfire in an
old metal basin and danced around its 20-foot-high flames. The moon,
which had been covered by clouds, appeared suddenly as everyone
raised their hands to the sky. "It was the first time I felt
the power of collective consciousness manifest itself in the material
world," says Jonas.
Another Oberlin turning point came when he composed
Unisong for Bottles for Professor Randy Coleman's composition
seminar, during which nine audience members blew across the tops
of water-filled glass bottles, attempting to tune them all to the
same note. The results, he says, were "simultaneously beautiful
for more information.
--Yvonne Gay Fowler