FOR people like Joseph John, the word “independence” takes on a different colour, tone and sound. While colour, tone and sound are all elements of music, for which John has an undying passion, earning his bread and butter for nearly as long as Saint Lucia itself has been independent from Britain has been through one vehicle: his drum.
Born and raised in Marchand Boulevard, John attended the Marchand Primary School before moving on to Entrepot Secondary School and later Castries Comprehensive Secondary School. He never really knew what he wanted to be, but exploring his creative side was among the mix.
The 52-year-old, who has been living at New Village, Castries since the 1990s, tells me that his journey with the drum began at Entrepot Secondary School through Lucia Peters’ drama group, Youth Action Theatre. At the time, he was just 16 years old and the group did drama and dance. Fate later intervened and the passion for which many have come to know him had its origins.
“During the dance course, the drummer got arrested and was deported to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. I ended up taking the drum home and bringing it to classes trying my own thing at it. Then I got one drumming lesson from a guy named Patrick Caroo. From then on, I never stopped playing,” John said of that defining moment in his musical life.
John, known to many as “Jean”, plays many different drums, including the Congo drum, djembe drum, Saint Lucian traditional – you name it, he plays it. However, he specializes more in African and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. But there are also other rhythms that he ends up developing, some of them through improvisation or to suit a certain setting or performance.
John’s drum can be heard among the musical beats that also pour out from the drum of his close friend and fellow drummer, Niger Nestor, with whom he plays at regular gigs around the island. Whether it’s the Jazz & Arts Festival, Carnival, Jounen Kwéyòl or just an impromptu masquerade session, count on John to be among those making the mood merry.
The former Lapo Kabwit member would have played with the late Athanasius Laborde, whose drumming DNA can still be found in the music played by his band mates. The band was formed in the mid-1980s and went on to become one of Saint Lucia’s best-known and best-loved musical units. John’s drumming talents have taken him to Barbados, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, Canada, the United States of America and India.
One of his biggest achievements is being the percussionist for the band, Wevolucian, fronted by super-talented singer, Meshach Nestor. If you get a chance to listen to the band’s acclaimed album, “Awake”, recorded nearly 15 years ago, you will hear John’s masterful drumming skills ringing true.
While he and Nestor continue to do their part to pass on their musical knowledge to school children and other groups, John believes that key cultural agencies need to recognize the importance of drumming. In order to be sustained, he said, the requisite funding needs to be an ongoing priority.
“The people who are supposed to be reinforcing the continuation and progression of the art of drumming would be the Folk Research Centre (FRC) and Cultural Development Foundation (CDF),” the seasoned musician explained. “They are the ones who have the resources. However, I started this craft through the school system, so it can work through that route as well.”
In a society where many people still believe that the arts are not the way to go in terms of making a living, John has proven that the opposite is true. All that is needed is the right amount of determination and hard work. For example, John is not just a musician but also makes hats, sandals and does macramé. He defines himself as “an all-round artiste who makes money in many ways”, adding that his self-employment and following his dreams have been his best vehicle to independence.
Consider this: the day after John graduated from Castries Comprehensive Secondary School in 1981, he went to Barbados for CARIFESTA, spending three weeks there before returning to Saint Lucia. Within a short space of time, he began performing gigs at the local hotels. Since then, he said, he has never written a job application.
“I’ve been able to build my home, among other things, because of my drumming. If I had to live my life again, I would live the same one I have lived,” John said.