Billy Jonas of Asheville, N.C., is one-third of the interfaith super-trio Abraham Jam. He is a singer-songwriter, percussionist, and multi-instrumentalist who works as a Jewish musician, as well as both a general audience performer, and family entertainer. He’s also a member of Congregation Beth HaTephila, where he is a part of their Sacred Music team.
We chatted with Jonas about Abraham Jam, a trio of internationally renowned musicians who have teamed up to create art strengthened by diversity.
ReformJudaism.org: You and your two band brothers, David LaMotte and Dawud Wharnsby, strike me as spiritual seekers, as well as ambassadors of interfaith understanding. Tell us about your Jewish journey.
Billy Jonas: Yes! All three of us feel extremely connected to our respective religious traditions. We’ve also learned to love and respect the different faith lenses we each are continually polishing.
Growing up, I felt a sense of pride from and connection with my Judaism, but synagogue worship at that time had an austerity and a heaviness that was not inspiring to me. Subsequently, as a young adult, I was playing spiritual smorgasbord, trying everything from Native American sweat lodges to Tibetan Buddhist meditation.
But every time I faced a spiritual crisis, I had to invent my own little spiritual hospital. I felt I needed to follow a more dependable and regular spiritual path, so I decided to set down some observances in my calendar for each quarter to help me feel more consistently connected to myself, the earth, and the great beyond.
“On September 21, the equinox,” I thought, “I’ll do a cleansing fast and a sweat.” I was surprised to see that Yom Kippur came just a couple of days after.
Then I thought, “On December 21, I’ll do a return-of-the-light ritual for the winter solstice,” and I saw that Hanukkah was near.
“On March 20,” I thought, “for the spring equinox, I’ll celebrate the re-greening of the planet,” and noticed that Passover was near.
It was at that moment that I thought, “Hmm… somebody thought of this already. Oh, OK, I’ll just be Jewish! This is my tradition, and I’m going to commit to it.”
What role has music played in your spiritual awakening?
Music has always been part of my life. I studied piano, guitar, and trombone when I was 5, 8, and 10, respectively. I loved to play but not to practice. Not being very disciplined, I found my greatest joy in creating original music, and becoming a conduit of song – and that became my discipline, albeit a spiritual one.
As the Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer sings in “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (“Jerusalem of Gold”), “Let me be a violin for all your songs.” I take those words to heart. Creating music with kavanah (devotional intention) has given me a greater appreciation for the sacred in my life.
What was the genesis of Abraham Jam?
It was initiated in 2010 by my long-time friend David LaMotte, a musician who is very well known in the Presbyterian world as a spokesman for peace, love, and understanding. Representing the North Carolina Council of Churches, he coordinated with the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim campus groups at Duke University to organize a concert honoring the three Abrahamic faiths in response to some incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia.
Muslim students wanted the renowned Canadian poet and songwriter Dawud Wharnsby; Jewish students wanted Dan Nichols, the “Jewish Bruce Springsteen.” I attended the concert and thought, “Wow. If they ever need a substitute, call me.” That opportunity came when Dan was unavailable to play with the band at a gathering of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, and he later gave me his blessing to be his successor.
How would you describe Abraham Jam’s musical approach?
It’s somewhere between folk and world music. We contribute vocal harmonies, percussion, and instrumentation to each other’s songs. As David says, “We don’t have to be singing the same note to cultivate peace; we can sing different notes that are beautiful together.”
What’s your most requested song?
“More Love (Karleigh’s Song)” has become something of an Abraham Jam anthem. I was commissioned to write it by a congregant for their granddaughter’s bat mitzvah.
You perform a version of Steve Earl’s “Jerusalem,” a song that touches on peace in the Middle East. Is that a touchy subject for some?
Because “Jerusalem” has both a heavy and hopeful aspect, we include this powerful song only after we’ve established a good rapport with the audience.
Tell us about your song “Braided Prayer,” which is also the title of an 18-minute documentary film about your band.
I open by singing the Sh’ma in Hebrew, then Dawud comes in with the Muslim Al-Fatiha prayer, followed by David singing The Lord’s Prayer in Spanish. The melodies of the three parts overlay beautifully.
In the film, there’s a shot of the three of you praying before you go on stage. Do you always do that?
Yes. We pray individually and together.
How do you know when the band is really connecting with the audience?
We know we have connected when we finish a song and there is silence – because everyone is swirling in the delicious feeling that was generated by the loop of the energy between us and the audience.
It’s been difficult not being able to perform live during the pandemic, but like many artists, we do events via Zoom, where we show Braided Prayer followed by a live Q&A with the band, which can be booked online.
Aron Hirt-Manheimer (he/him) is the Union for Reform Judaism‘s editor-at-large. He is former editor of Reform Judaism magazine (1976-2014) and founding editor of Davka magazine (1970-1976), a West Coast Jewish quarterly. His books include Jagendorf’s Foundry: A Memoir of the Romanian Holocaust (HarperCollins, 1991) and Jews: The Essence and Character of a People (HarperCollins, 1998) with Arthur Hertzberg. (Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum)
In historically divisive times, it’s good to be reminded that we don’t have to agree on everything in order to form deep friendships ~ creating community, beauty, and art together.
Please join Abraham Jam (Billy Jonas, David LaMotte and Dawud Wharnsby) on Sunday, December 6, at 4:00 PM Eastern, to see Braided Prayer, a new 18-minute documentary from John Kennedy and David Saich. The one-hour online program will include a screening of the film, Q & R with the band and filmmakers, and music from Abraham Jam.
Braided Prayer has been screened at the 2020 San Jose International Short Film Festival, and the Twin Cities Film Festival, and will soon be shown at The Hague Global Cinema Festival.
To invite friends and spread the word, please copy and share this url: www.BraidedPrayer.com
Customarily, when multiple artists each having his or her own successful career come together, it’s for one of two reasons. They might collaborate simply because it’s fun, because it gives them a chance to step outside whatever stylistic box they may be in, because they’re up for what used to be known colloquially as a busman’s holiday. The other reason that established musicians team up is to do something special, something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
In all likelihood, Abraham Jam is the product of both kinds of motivation. To be sure, none of the three artists involved “needs” another project; each has a thriving and creatively fulfilling musical path all his own. Asheville-based Billy Jonas is a multi-instrumentalist with many albums to his credit. He often works with re-purposed items, making musical instruments out of materials not designed as such. A key portion of his work centers around family entertainment, though much of his catalog is aimed at a general audience.
Born in Canada, Dawud Wharnsby is a songwriter with more than a dozen albums, and a poet who has published five anthologies of his work. David LaMotte, from Black Mountain, is a breathtakingly busy musician, songwriter and peace activist who also finds time to write books, schedule public speaking appearances and travel the world in support of those endeavors.
In 2010, LaMotte was also working with the North Carolina Council of Churches. It was there that he conceived the concept of Abraham Jam. A Christian, he’s now teamed up musically with Jonas (a Jew) and Wharnsby, an adherent of the Muslim faith. Together they make music that celebrates and encourages harmony and unity among the three Abrahamic faiths.
Leveraging the popularity of all three musicians — and building on the anticipation of a collaborative venture — Abraham Jam launched a Kickstarter campaign. That effort raised more than $48,000, and the tangible result of the campaign was not one but two album releases.
Customarily, a new act makes a studio album or two (or more) before documenting a concert in the form of a live album. But because it captures the essence of the trio so effectively, Abraham Jam Live was the debut release in 2018. And, demonstrating that the creative well from which the three draw is a deep one, the newest Abraham Jam album, White Moon, is a studio release that features all new material. Only one of its 11 songs (most of which are band originals) appeared on the live set.
As one would rightly expect, the songs on White Moon are inspirational, positive, uplifting and upbeat. The songs make good use of the instrumental strengths of all three musicians, and combine the air and ambiance of the traditional musical styles that are a part of their respective faiths. Vocal harmonies further the lyrical messages of harmony. The songs celebrate the values that unite the three different religions, but not in a way that dilutes the core values of each.
Middle Eastern textures of the title track are contrasted with the gospel-meets-reggae feel of “Love is the Seventh Wave,” and the group members’ ties to Appalachia shine through on the acoustic “Jerusalem.” The three vocalists allow their voices to wrap around each other in dramatic fashion in the aptly titled “Braided Prayer.” Singer-songwriter values are on display on “More Love (Karleigh’s Song).”
The song titles on White Moon telegraph the demeanor of the album: “Song of Peace,” “Rhythm of Surrender,” “Child’s Prayer.” A spoken-word introduction to the subtly funky “Drink Deeply” quotes from the Persian poet and mystic Rumi.
After making it plain that the trio has no shortage of original ideas that support its core message (described by Wharnsby as, “sing[ing] our world’s ongoing story together”), Abraham Jam wraps up its first studio album with a medley. Pairing “Peace Train” by Cat Stevens (aka Yusuf Islam) and Curtis Mayfield’s gospel-soul classic “People Get Ready” is inspired on a number of levels. Both songs make use of the image of a train to convey a kind of universal brother- and sisterhood. And, although Stevens and Mayfield themselves wrote from different faith perspectives, their songs fit together seamlessly. Even without the stirring words, that fact brings home the central message of unity that lies at the heart of White Moon.