After devising his own instrument called the “Nimbus 2000” out of a curtain rod, a broomstick and a tambourine, you can think of Billy Jonas as a modern-day musical MacGyver.
The musician generally comes up with a new instrument each month, reinventing the use of numerous household objects. At 5 and 7 p.m. tonight at Smith Wilkes Hall, Jonas will make his fourth appearance at Chautauqua Institution as part of the Family Entertainment Series, in which he will most likely introduce some familiar objects in a whole new form.
“Anytime you create something, you are generally making an innovation,” Jonas said. “All of these instruments … are innovations. They are all based on instruments or sculptures that I’ve seen before. I would see something that really captured my ear or my eye and then I would think, ‘How could I do this with simple materials and make it fun?’ ”
Touring and performing for the past 22 years, Jonas has come up with a lot of new music-makers. He has used coiled-up sewer drainage pipes cut at different lengths as a “tubaluba,” pans and tin cans as a xylophone and has a drum kit made entirely out of five-gallon buckets and a garbage can.
He likes to create instruments that are fun and accessible, portable and inexpensive. Rather than running out to the hardware store, Jonas will go into his basement to locate a possible component of an instrument.
“These are sounds that you just don’t get out of normal instruments,” he said. “They really have a whimsical and magical quality.”
For Jonas, creating music has always been a magical thing. When he was in summer camp in the ’70s, the counselors were always gathered around the campfire, playing music on guitars, harmonicas and anything they could get their hands on.
“It was such a glorious kind of tribal experience,” he said, “that I thought, ‘I want to figure out a way to make that happen for the rest of my life.’ ”
His immediate passion for “found” music, coupled with his inability to keep his hands still — he said that he has a happy affliction called “bang on everything,” which causes him to tap on objects anywhere and everywhere — has led to a desire to connect music and people.
Having studied anthropology in college, Jonas is interested in understanding how music and language shape society, he said. He enjoys learning and teaching about how music functions in society and the power that it carries, as well as music of other cultures that focus on voice and percussion.
“The foundation of all our music … is voice and percussion, using our bodies and our voices and whatever’s around to play a rhythm on,” he said, “which is how music has been done for thousands of years before there was contemporary, industrialized societies.”
His music is about getting back to the basics and exploring the relationship between music and humanity. Jonas hopes that when audience members leave his concerts, they feel connected to each other and to the universe, he said.
Jonas and his band refer to the performance as a “sing-along, bang-along, whisper-along” concert, and Jonas thinks people will leave feeling more connected to the community.
“I like to think of these performances or these songs as pushing people’s ‘wonder button,’ ” he said. “So they are learning, if nothing else, to open their mind to possibility. These concerts are really exciting for people whose minds are already wide open. And for those whose minds are not so wide open, these concerts are … expanding the possibilities of what can be done with music, performance and with themselves as musicians.”