When Steel Talks spoke to composer, panist and performing artist Jonathan Scales just before he began his month-long tour of Asia with his group Jonathan Scales Fourchestra. In speaking about the then-upcoming tour Jonathan said, “There will be a lot of collaborating with the local musicians over there and a lot of workshops and clinics for students, in addition to us just doing our show.” In realty there was much, much more.
Jonathan Scales Fourchestra captured the imagination and hearts of the people of the Orient. And in return the group lived a fascinating and profound experience that will be with them for a lifetime.
Like Emmanuel “Jack” Riley, Robert Greenidge, Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, Clive Bradley, Earl Rodney and Ray Holman to name a few - Jonathan Scales is part of the now-most recent group of musicians like Andy Akiho, Andre White and Leon “Foster” Thomas who are simply game-changers as they shine light on the steelpan instrument and art form through a different prism.
In this follow-up interview with Jonathan, When Steel Talks (WST) takes an in-depth look at the travel, the man, his music and his pan.
WST - “When last WST hooked up with you, you were about to head off on the whirlwind month-tour of the Orient that would take you through Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and Indonesia. Before getting into the musical aspect of things, how did that experience (during the overall trip) impact you on the human side of things?”
Jonathan S. - “On the human side of things, I would say that this tour reinforced to me that we’re all the same. We all really have the same hopes, dreams, & aspirations... at the end of the day, everybody just wants to be happy. Also, just like anywhere else in the World, it was interesting to see the gap between the super rich and the super poor... just as an observation... but that’s a whole nother [sic] topic!”
WST - “Let’s step outside your body for a moment. What was different, or the same for that matter, in terms of how the people of the Orient responded to hearing the Pan for the first time - as say, compared to people (first-timers) in America?”
Jonathan S. - “I feel like the people I played for in Asia didn’t have any preconceived notions of what you’re “supposed to do” on steel pan, so I feel like they were just open to hear what I had to offer.”
Jonathan Scales in China
WST - “Has this experience changed your personal view of your music? Does your pan look the same to you?”
Jonathan S. - “I’d have to say yes. My initial instinct would be to say “no,” but then I think back to the show at the special needs school in Taiwan and how the music made a 7-year-old, wheelchair-bound kid want to try to get up and walk for the first time...that’ll change a person! People always talk about “the power of music,” but it’s another thing when something unexplainable like that actual goes down.”
WST - “When one tours like you just did -- one starts to see things in general differently - the airports are all different, the smells, the sounds - and at the same time, similar. What has stood out for you?”
Jonathan S. - “Well, speaking of smells...apparently there is this dish called “stinky tofu” that was popular in Taiwan and let’s just say it really lives up to its name. I didn’t try it but I could definitely smell it in the night markets. This is kind of an overwhelming question for me really, because a lot of things stood out, but at the same time a lot of things were really familiar...almost like being in a parallel universe. Of course everything varies from place to place...for example, students in China & Hong Kong tend to be way more reserved and won’t engage that much during a Question & Answer session (though we broke through that stereotype a few times), and students in Indonesia tend to be more outgoing and free to ask all kinds of questions and step outside of their comfort zones, even at a private Islamic school.”
WST - “Did all the different languages and dialects start to sound like a ‘song’ to you?”
Jonathan S. - “As many people who follow me online know, I’m REALLY into languages....so to me, personally, saying a language sounds like a song is kind of an over-simplification of incredibly constructed systems of communication....hahaha... I know that sounds dramatic and of course there are tones, rhythms, and melodic elements to languages, but for me when I hear languages I start to learn and absorb little by little, analyzing things like sentence structure & verb conjugation....yes, I’m a nerd when it comes to languages...hahaha! And yet, I just typed the most ridiculous “run-on sentence”!”
WST - “Describe what happened when you met up with indigenous elder singers of the Amis Tribe in Taiwan. Was that a ‘Walking with the Gods’ moment?”
Jonathan S. - “That was a really special meeting. Taiwan kind of reminded me of America historically, in the fact that tribes of indigenous people lived there before a more modern power invaded... in this case, China was the invader. Therefore, the singers in the Amis tribe were keeping traditions alive from before the Chinese invaded Taiwan, which is really deep. Many of the singers spoke their indigenous languages, and I believe there were a few people who didn’t even speak Chinese. It was definitely a deeply emotional experience making music together...it was just real... not about chops, not about impressing anyone, just pure music-making. I remember in the studio, we had to start over once because the main male singer began to cry; he was moved to tears of joy to hear his tribe’s music re-imagined.”
Jonathan Scales with indigenous elder singers of the Amis Tribe in Taiwan
WST - “What did you come away with overall from this tour? How will it impact your music?”
Jonathan S. - “I think overall, I walked away feeling like I have a greater purpose here than I had ever imagined. The Fourchestra is just a vessel for this music, and I saw first-hand how it affected people who are on the other side of the World, with different beliefs who don’t speak the same language as I. Whether this project serves to inspire people or make people see music or the steel pan in a different light, the trip reinforced in me that I have to keep working hard to do this until I can’t anymore.”
WST - “Max Roach once said to WST after experiencing an extended tour with the steelpan as an accompanying voice in his ensemble that “There is nothing like the steelpan - steelpan is magical.” It would appear you have seen the magic of the steelpan in a very tangible way. Is this so?”
Jonathan S. - “I’d say so.”
WST - “A decade has passed since WST first heard, reviewed and experienced your music, and subsequently we declared you had “a Thelonious Monk-like attitude with a Mozart creativity that works...” What would Jonathan Scales of today tell that Jonathan Scales back then?”
Jonathan S. - “Well, I’d probably let my past self know that, as your career moves further along, it doesn’t get any easier! It just means there are even more things to manage, plan, worry about, and figure out than before! But that’s not a bad thing at all! I think most people think once they get “to a certain point,” somehow it’s all smooth sailing. Also, I’d let my past self know that it’s ok to have your own voice as a player...sometimes I still have to tell my current self that.”
WST - “What next for Jonathan Scales?”
Jonathan S. - “Writing for a new album. Scattered shows for the next couple months including Utah Steel Band Festival and PanFest in Virginia Beach. Then June, I’ll be going on the road again with a special line-up that includes MonoNeon (Prince’s last bass player), Robert Sput Searight from Snarky Puppy, and the great African percussionist Weedie Braimah. In July, I’m going to Africa to do some stuff in Mauritania (the US Dept. of State gave me this opportunity, like the Asia tour). Then more stuff with that special line-up at the end of July... plus a lot of dates with my other various line-ups of the Fourchestra... all amazing players. Also just keeping up with the business end of things for the Fourchestra, which is basically my full-time job. Hahaha....yeah. Right now, I’m focusing on writing new music in-between juggling the business.”
Reflections in Scales
When Steel Talks asked Jonathan to relive some of his personal moments on this fantastic journey with us. Following are his expanded thoughts, feelings, and insights in each instance.
WST - On March 3rd you wrote -- “We performed at a Muslim school in Indonesia today. It was amazing to feel the kid’s reactions. This Muslim school turned into a rock show while we were there and I’m pretty sure we finished in time for their Friday afternoon prayer. We are all the same and music definitely has a power that not even I really understand. - I think this school wants to start a little steel band now!”
Jonathan S. - “With everything going on in the world today, it was just really cool to see and experience how we are all the same at the end of the day.”
WST - On February 24th you wrote -- “That moment when you have a performance with a Chinese Opera tomorrow and your schedule has been too busy to practice so you rely on your ability to read music, but when you open the e-mail to do some last-minute cramming after midnight, the sheet music looks like this, and you have to take a train at 6:30am to Hefei, China....looks like I’ll be pulling an all-nighter to learn this music! Hahaha :-) Here goes...”
Jonathan S. - “Oh yes....well, it was pretty tricky and I couldn’t figure it out, so I learned it by ear the night before (really the day of, early in the morning)...crazy thing is when I showed up, I had learned the wrong version. The singers had a different version they wanted to do. Luckily they adapted enough to pull it off...also, when we went to rehearse at the venue with the singers, there were at least a hundred people waiting to get in already! Someone let them in and we had to rehearse in front of the audience which was kind of awkward...but it all worked out in the end.”
WST - On February 18th you wrote --
“When 800 people show up
to see the Fourchestra in Hong Kong ❤ ”
Jonathan S. - “This was just a dream day all the way around in Hong Kong. 5-star hotel...amazing food with amazing people and a sold-out show where all I had to do was show up and do my thing. That’s the dream! Still have a ways to go before it’s like this everyday. Hahaha.”
WST - On March 6th you wrote -- “Thousands gathered in Berau, Indonesia to hear the Fourchestra on this Monday night! ❤ Next stop: Jakarta Indonesia and then finally back to the United States of America!”
Jonathan S. - “The people in Berau, Indonesia were really just curious to come out and see this band from America! At all these shows, I always took the time (with the help of a translator) to talk about the steel pan and Trinidad.”
WST - On Feb 24th you also wrote -- “Music College of Hunan Normal University in China. City of Changsha, Hunan Province. ❤ #CulturalDiplomacy #USChinaRelations”
Jonathan S. - “This was after a big show we had in Changsha, China. After the last song, I brought my pans down into the audience for people to get an up-close-and-personal look at the pans. The number one comment I get from audiences is that they wish they could see my hands during the show. I think this is something that we take for granted in the steel pan community. People are amazed to see how it works, but to us, it’s just playing pan! So, I try to give people the opportunity to see what I’m doing when I can.”
WST - On February 23rd you wrote -- “Took a domestic flight from Zhuhai to Changsha for this show...packed house! Doing a workshop and another concert tonight at the local university and then off to Hefei, China...still can’t believe I’m in freakin’ China...hahaha! Good times.”
Jonathan S. - It’s like I’m used to it, but still happy to be here at the same time.
WST - On February 21st you wrote -- “Played my first show in mainland China tonight!!!!”
Jonathan S. - “Really the same answer as the previous one. When I started the Fourchestra in January 2007, I remember looking out the window and thinking to myself that I want this project to go all over the World. It’s crazy for me to look back and remember those beginning moments of my career, and then playing to a packed house in a little jazz club in Zhuhai, China 10 years later. I know it’s 10 years in the making but it feels like the blink of an eye.”
WST - On February 15th you wrote --
“Anyone who really knows
me knows that I’m now attempting to master conversational Chinese in 8
days...just because. 我要冰水！ 我的中文很烂！😅😅”
Jonathan S. - “Yeah...hahaha. I really like to learn different languages. Sometimes I feel like it’s easier for me to absorb spoken language than it is for me to learn music. The way my brain is wired, I could probably become fluent in Chinese AND Japanese before I could learn to play like Victor Provost, Boogsie, or Liam Teague! People were impressed with my Chinese accent and how I was picking things up fast (I would study in my hotel room when I had some downtime just for fun). But, right now, I’m just too busy with my career so I’m putting languages on hold, except for continuing to solidify Spanish...If I wasn’t playing music, I would love to become an interpreter.”
WST - On February 18th you wrote -- “Played for a packed house of 800 people tonight in Hong Kong!...the whole time I was thinking
“Man, i wrote these songs years ago in my bedroom!””
Jonathan S. - “Definitely surreal for me because I can always take myself back to where I was when I wrote the music. One tune of mine in particular called “Desert”...I wrote in 10th grade, before I played pan.”
WST - On February 15th you wrote --
“Man...today we played at a special needs school in Hualien, Taiwan, for kids with mental and physical disabilities. Found out afterwards that there was a 7-year-old who has been in a wheel chair for 2 years and refuses to even try to walk. At the end of the Fourchestra’s
presentation, this child told his mom that now he wants to walk.
The mother was in tears because she has never been able to get
this kind of response from her child in the past. This trip has
been pretty surreal, but knowing that this happened today really
puts things into perspective about MUSIC & the human connection.
Jonathan S. - “Wow... that was a special experience. What more can I say? One thing I didn’t know was that the kid was ACTUALLY trying to walk DURING the concert with the aid of his caretakers... when I wrote this I thought that maybe he just told his mom that he had the desire... but no...he actually attempted walking for the first time in a long time. Man...”
WST - On February 13th you wrote -- “This is what I get to do in life, and I’m honestly humbled and thankful beyond explanation. Tonight for the encore, I brought the steel pans down from the stage to share a moment with the beautiful people of Taitung, Taiwan. Thank you for listening and letting me share what I do.”
Jonathan S. - “I often find myself playing down off the stage and letting people surround me and the pans. It makes it more special sometimes when there’s a language barrier involved...you get to see face to face how music affects people.”
WST - On February 11th you wrote -- “The World needs more things like this right now! Here’s a beautiful moment of cultures coming together, playing a traditional Taiwanese folk tune on steel pan along with Jipo Yang & 林小綠 from the band A Root 同根生. ”
Jonathan S. - “I’d never seen those traditional Taiwanese instruments before or even heard of them. Once again [it] shows the whole “music is a language” idea because we were able to make music together despite the language barrier.”
WST - On February 9th you wrote -- “This man was so excited about the Fourchestra coming to Taiwan that he wrote, by hand, his own special medley of folk tunes scored for steel pan, bass, & percussion.... pretty overwhelming! #culturaldiplomacy #ExchangeOurWorld”
Jonathan S. - “And this was day 1 before we played any shows. It was overwhelming to say the least! I felt bad because we didn’t have time to learn this man’s music that the wrote for us because our schedule over there was just insanely busy. There was even a part he wrote for a train whistle and he gave me one of those wooden train whistles that you blow into! Yes, this was Day 1.”
WST - On February 9th you wrote -- “Live stream from Taipei”
Jonathan S. - “Hmm? Oh, I think this was our first performance of the tour. Playing on a little stage outside of a Subway station in Taipei. I remember it was unseasonably freezing. We were really just warming up on that show in a lot of ways hahaha... we hadn’t rehearsed before the tour so this was kind of like a warm-up show for us. People were genuinely curious but shy. I remember a man talking to me briefly after the show who seemed to have tears in his eyes. I gave him a CD.”
WST - On February 6th you wrote -- “Jonathan Scales with Xavier L. Breaker and Jay White in Washington, District of Columbia. February 6 · It’s an honor to be representing the United States of America as a cultural ambassador, as the Fourchestra will be doing concerts and workshops in Asia for the next month. It’s also a privilege to be playing the steel pan, the national instrument of Trinidad & Tobago, for audiences who might be a little off the beaten path and maybe haven’t been exposed. Flying out in the morning...first stop: Taiwan. Then Hong Kong, China, & Indonesia...here we go!”
Jonathan S. - “That pretty much sums it up! I know I was chosen by my government because of my music, but I also know that my instrument of choice is from another nation, so I can’t be blind to that. I will be representing the US again this summer in Africa (Mauritania) and looking forward to both playing my original music and exposing people to the steel pan there in July 2017.”
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