David Johnson, 41 of Chicago, plays his Djembe for the crowds at Jackson Square (photo by TMB)
Ask just about any tourist in New Orleans what the attraction to the city is and nine out of ten times you’ll hear the same answer- “It’s the food and the music.” This is ironic because for David Johnson, a Jackson Square African drum, or Djembe, (a rope-tuned, skin-covered drum shaped like a goblet,) player, his music is how he feeds himself. A street musician for the past five years, he plays at least six days a week, not because he wants to but because he has to.
“I play alone sometimes,” he says. “Other times I play with friends, it all depends what’s happening on the street that day. Don’t get me wrong, I love to play…but even more than that, a person’s got to eat.”
Originally from Harvey Illinois, home to the country’s largest shopping mall, which has the unusual distinction of having Jake and Elwood Blues drive their car through in their famous “mission from God” exploit, the 41-year-old has been banging his drum in the French Quarter since 2012. However, drums were not Johnson’s first instrument.
“I started out playing French horn in the third-gradegrammar school band when I was just a kid,” he says. “But there are just so many horn players in New Orleans I wanted to do something original, and frankly, the Djembe is very portable.”
The son of working middle-class parents, Johnson wanted to be an airline pilot as a young man. After his 1995 high school graduation, Johnson joined the United States Air Force and served a three-year hitch.He said his first heartbreak in life was when he realized he’d never be a fighter pilot. He didhowever play trumpet,French horn and drums for the U.S.A.F. band while serving his tour of duty. Johnson moved to Atlanta after his discharge in 1998 and began producing his own music with internet software-the new choice for inexpensive production at the time. Johnson stayed in Atlanta for several years but his music never really took off, so he moved back to Chicago. Not long afterwards he ran into an old high school band friend, who told him about the New Orleans live music scene. His friend was pulling up stakes for the “NOLA” and Johnson decided to join him.
“That was around the end of 2012, I believe,” he says.
Johnson admits initially… it did not go quite as expected.
“I found myself homeless after three months,”
“I lost all my equipment, my instruments, my apartment and I was sleeping on a bench in Jackson Square.”
But Johnson was determined not to fail; he worked some odd jobs, made some money and found his West African drum…and a new career. He began playing by himself in the Square, for tips and eventually, he met other musicians and started jamming with them.
Soon he was a member of a five-piece group named BUKU BROUX (check them out at www.bukubroux.com), a New Orleans five-piece fusion band led by kora player, Jonah Tobias, a 32-year-old fromRhode Island. Tobias also has lived in New Orleans for six years, and has been band-mates with Johnson during that time.
Tobias describes the city as unique due to the way people hang out in their neighborhoods, on the front porch, and not in their back yards.
“It feels like no barriers,” he says. “It’s all kind of just out there, people sharing (time) and I like to be a part of that.”
New Orleans visitors in Jackson Square, like 19-year-old Garrett Allen of Austin Texas, seem to feel likewise.
“I love the live music and diversity here,’ Allen says. “The culture just draws you in, it’s a wonderful atmosphere, I love being a part of it even if it’s just for a few days on vacation.”
Johnson describes the life he’s chosen as one that brings him avast amount of joy. He makes his own hours, he doesn’t have to report to a boss. He gets to work outside, and he’s able to meet a varied group of people from all over the world. But, he admits, the life has its challenges as well.
“Well,for one thing, playing in an outdoor venue every day you become naturally weather dependent,” he says. “You can be flooded out by rain, or you can be burned out by sun and heat. The crowds can be very thin and you don’t make much, or they can be very large but don’t leave much. Also, the competition can be thick. It’s happened before that you’ll get a crowd together and then a brass band will set up 15 feet away and just start playing over you.”
Johnson plays six days out of seven, weather dependent, he rests on Tuesdays, but that’s life he admits. As far as other people “stepping” on his act, well, he understandsnot everything is perfect and has learned how to cope with those who have something to learn about etiquette.
“The way I look at it is they can’t play forever.”
“I just stay calm and wait for them to stop. Then I play, and I’ll keep on playing, because I’m here to stay.”