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October 2023
Vol. 23, No. 1

Featured Stories

Doin’ the Hambone with Slapjazz Danny Barber

by Paul HormickOctober 2018

Slapjazz Danny Barber

The man on stage is in a crisp pair of blue jeans and t-shirt. There is the large frame and the shaved head. The baritone quality of his voice fills the hall as he addresses the audience. The smile is warm and broad. Then Slapjazz Danny sits down in an ordinary armless chair. Microphones surround him, pointing at his legs and chest. He pauses for a moment… Silence… Then the arms and hands start flying.

Pada Pap! Pada Pap!
Pap! Pap! Pap!
Rat-a-tat rat-a-tat rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat…

The source of all the sound, all the rhythm, is Slapjazz Danny himself. The gloved hands are the equivalent of drumsticks and the musician’s thighs and chest are the equivalent of drums. The left hand comes down on a thigh–whap!–and the right evokes a deep thump from his chest. The two hands make a complex polyrhythm, which work together for a quick whip-whap on the tops and outsides of SlapJazzDanny’s thighs. The riffs and tattoos come rapid fire. The musician then slows the tempo. The gloves come off and the sound of the slaps and body strikes is sharper and more direct. The tempo builds back up, and Slapjazz Danny brings it all to a climax.

A complete musical performance.

No fiddles. No trumpets. No harps. No bassoons.

Just one man and a pair of gloves.

One man, a pair of glove, and oh, yes, a whole lot of talent.

Slapjazz Danny, more commonly known as Danny Barber, is performing hambone, a centuries-old musical tradition that goes back to the days of slavery in the Americas. “The slave owners broke up the slaves. They wouldn’t let them gather in groups,” says Barber. Separated, the slaves devised ways of communicating through drums. Once the slaveholders caught on to the slaves’ version of Morse code, they removed all the drums, gourds, hollowed logs, anything that the slaves could use to beat out a signal or a rhythm. Ever resourceful, the slaves developed hambone, in which rhythms were made by hitting and slapping their bodies, usually their thighs and chests. As Barber explains, “Slapping on the chest gives the equivalent of the bass drum, and slapping on the thigh is like the snare.”

Along came the American Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment, and emancipation, but hambone lived on. African-Americans passed on the tradition. And, as with the blues and other African-American art forms, white folks started doing hambone, too. Barber has taken the tradition of hambone and advanced this tradition of making rhythm, with his talents being well recognized. The Toronto Globe and Mail has called him one of “the greatest hambone artists in the world.” Barber describes his contributions to the art of hambone as “advanced syncopation with vocalization. I take it to another level.”

Watching Barber practice his craft, what strikes me is the efficiency of how he goes about using his body as a percussion instrument. It is with lightning quickness that his arms and hands zip from thigh to chest and back to thigh. I hear a rat-a-tat-tat and swear that I did not see either of his hands move to make that sound. It seems as though he spends almost no energy, and yet there is a lot of sound. Closing my eyes, if someone told me that there were two musicians on stage, I’d believe her. At the end of a performance Barber has not even broken a sweat.

Most of Barber’s performances include workshops and clinics for those who wish to play hambone themselves. He says that people see his blitz performance and can’t imagine themselves doing the same, but he is able to get folks pretty far along to hamboning with the best of them. He says, “I break it down for them and show them that they can do this, too. And the people are extremely amazed that they can do this.”

While Barber does not need to have a disclaimer of CHILDREN DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME, he does say that particularly at first a little care needs to be taken. “At first I advise people to please be gentle when they are first doing this,” he says. “I had one girl once who was very fair-skinned and you should have seen her. Her thighs were all red from how hard she was slapping. I was glad that her parents weren’t there to see her and how red she’d gotten herself.”

Barber hosts workshops for beginners as well as advanced rhythm makers. Both beginner and advanced groups are kept small, to allow for individual attention to each student. Workshops can be scheduled for one or two hour sessions.

Rhythm was to be Danny Barber’s life from the very start. His mother, annoyed that her young son was slapping and beating out rhythms on her coffee table, enrolled him in a marching band. In quick succession the young Barber mastered the bass drum, then the tenor drum, and soon after added the snare drum to the list of instruments at which he excelled. Then, at the age of 16, Barber’s cousin introduced him to hambone, the art of making rhythm and music by slapping the thighs and chest. The snare, bass drum, even the coffee table were left behind. “I knew then that this was something I had to do,” says Barber. He recounts that he spent hour upon hour of his teenage years practicing his hambone.

Barber is in demand for his particular brand of rhythm making. He has recorded with percussionist Brent Lewis on his 2004 Grammy nominated CD Drum Sex. If you’ve ever doubted the power and musicality of percussion, you can click on a Youtube selection of this collaboration. It’s dynamite. Barber has also performed with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the revivalist black string band founded by Dom Flemmons and Rhiannon Giddons.

He has performed at the well-loved Idyllwild Jazz in the Pines. And his talents have taken him as far as Istanbul, Turkey, where he took part in the Fifth Annual Body Music Festival in 2012. Although Istanbul is on the other side of the world, Barber found that he was something of a celebrity, with many of the Turks having seen his talents on YouTube. People asked for his autograph.

The International Body Music Festival was founded in San Francisco in 2008 by percussionist and rhythm dancer Keith Terry. It is organized under the auspices of Crosspulse, a Bay Area nonprofit arts organization that promotes the performance, recording, and education of cross-cultural rhythmic arts. The body rhythms of the festival include tap dancing, the popping of cheeks, even skipping and sliding. The festival is held in San Francisco every other year and at international destinations, like Istanbul, during intervening years. The festival has taken place in Paris, Ghana, and Italy.

Besides his body, Barber’s other instruments are the cajon–the rhythm box from South America–and the jaw harp. The jaw harp, also called Jew’s harp, is one of the simplest instruments ever invented. It is constructed from a small reed or piece of metal attached to a small frame. Placed at the lips of a partially closed mouth, the musician plucks the reed or piece of metal. Tone is manipulated by the musician’s breath and movement of cheeks, jaw, and tongue. Some folks say that the pitch of the instrument is not changed, only the overtones, but that’s a discussion we’ll take up when we have achieved world peace and have a lot of time on our hands. The jaw harp is currently quite popular in Russia.

The jaw harp is believed to be Asian in origin, with historical evidence of the instrument being played in China 400 years before the birth of Jesus. Europeans took a liking to the jaw harp in the early 19th century. A number of classical composers wrote concerti for the instrument.

If these composers were thrust forward in time to today to witness Barber perform, they would have a lot to reconsider. Barber adds a great deal of rhythmic variation (big surprise) to his jaw harp. There are trills and rat-a-tat-tats as he handles his harp.

Recent performances for Slapjazz Danny include his appearance in Old Town for the Twain Fest. Sponsored by Write Out Loud, a San Diego-based organization of actors and writers, Twain Fest is a celebration of Mark Twain and other writers of the 19th century, such as Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the creator of the great white whale, Herman Melville.

So after decades of slapping his thighs and hitting his chest, is Danny Barber still eager to perform hambone? The answer is an enthusiastic Yes! He says that he still loves the simplicity of the art form of hambone “This is very unique,” he says. “You just don’t find people doing this every day.”

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