Interview with PO1 Jonah David, USN
JAW had the opportunity to sit down over Zoom and talk with Grammy nominated drummer MU1 Jonah David (for non-Navy readers, that rank translates as Petty Officer First Class – Musician, or E-6); perhaps best known for his work with Jewish reggae star Matisyahu. Jonah gave us a glimpse into his musical and Navy careers, as well as a dive into his vibrant Jewish soul.
MU1 David, thanks for making time to speak with us! Give us a bit on your musical background.
JD: We had a lot of music in our house. My dad used to play a lot of records, and my brother was a Deadhead who was into all sorts of avant garde music. He had a drum set, but I don’t remember him playing them at all. Personally, though, my first experience with the drums was actually with one of those small Casio keyboards. I remember being four or five years old, playing a very basic beat with the hi-hat sounds, again and again.
In middle school, I tried to get lessons, but it didn’t really work out. In high school a friend showed me how to play a rudiment called a paradiddle, and I was hooked. I came home and told my parents, “I don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I’m going to play music. I’m going to play drums ” ! You might say that it hit me in the soul. I started college as a biology major, but I soon realized that I wasn’t really sold on becoming a doctor. One day I was talking to my uncle – a lawyer – about my dilemma, and he asked me, “If you could have been a professional musician but didn’t, would you be able to live with yourself?” The very next day I went to the guidance counselor and told him I was changing my major to music.
So to some degree, I had a late start, but I had the passion, and I stuck with it.
When did you and Matisyahu start collaborating musically?
JD: During those college years, I played a lot of jam sessions and with several bands. Over time, I found myself playing a lot with bassist Josh Werner. Guitarist Aaron Dugan, who was working with Matisyahu, called Josh to ask him to collaborate; and Josh, in turn, called me, and we started working together. Our work together eventually became “Roots Tonic”, Matisyahu’s backing band. We played and toured together for several years. I’m on 3 of his records – two of which, Live at Stubb’s Vol. 1 and Youth, went gold – and his live DVD.
Matisyahu has a song called “Warrior”, in which he sings, “You’re a warrior, fightin’ for your soul.” I’ve always loved those lyrics. But now you yourself are a warrior, on so many levels. Any thoughts on that? What’s the message in this line for your fellow Jewish American Warriors?
JD: We’re all in our own struggles. There’s this tendency to become less spiritual in many ways: whether that’s because of our surroundings, because of science, or social media, or even just our physical experience on this earth. The whole aging process is a worldly experience. So we need to define the moments when we are going to have a spiritual connection. That requires effort – even significant effort. For me, having a secular job in the US military, it’s extremely demanding. I try to get up, wash my hands, thank G-d that all my systems are functioning, put on Tallit and Tefillin and say the first paragraph of the Shema, and that’s all I get to do for the whole day. I’ll listen to a Rabbi praying Shacharit – morning service – as I’m grabbing my food and running out the door, because my first student is at 7 AM, and my day is stacked after that. As an instructor in the Navy School of Music, I have to practice constantly to give the students my all, there are performances, projects, military training, and there’s training for the training… Talk about meta: There’s a process teaching me the process to teach the process! Between that and all the other responsibilities: working out, the effort to stay competitive in the rank structure, collateral duties, taking care of uniforms… There’s no shortage of things I can do to devote to the Navy. So it is a struggle to find spiritual balance, and I think that’s the message we can take from that song.
After Grammy nominations, gold albums and successful tours, what led you to enlist in the Navy? Going from a successful career to Basic Training as an enlisted sailor must have been quite an experience – although I’m sure you had no problem marching in time. Tell us about that.
JD: Everyone has a story of how they came to the military. After I split up with Matisyahu, there was a struggle to figure out what to do next. I was in LA, and even though I was starting to crack the music scene there, with some gigs and sessions, I didn’t have a way to create a stable lifestyle. My wife was an officer in the Air Force, so I tried to join the Air Force. I won the audition, but they didn’t like my tattoos. At that point, I was pretty gung-ho so I went to a Navy recruiter, and he was all smiles: “Tattoos? Come on over!” They welcomed me with open arms.
Any second thoughts about enlisting?
JD: Incredibly, I got a call from a lawyer representing a well known band just two weeks before I shipped out. The band was signed to a major label and offered me a deal as a full member, but I was already DEP’d in, heading into the Navy. Besides, this offer would have entailed a lot of touring. My experiences with the music industry weren’t great, so it really did not promise the stability I was craving. And to be honest, I had already raised my hand to swear to defend the Constitution and that had a profound impact on me.
What was your experience like in basic training?
JD: I kinda knew what to expect in Basic Training, but I thought it was going to be more demanding. Instead it was kind of like high school gym, but all day: from 8 AM to 6 PM. Get up, get yelled at, run around, do some push ups and squats, sing Anchors Away at the top of your lungs, and then, maybe something else happens, laundry, medical, dental, firearms and they’re having us run around again; lunch, and then more yelling, more working out; dinner and more of the same. Often we would work out until lights out, and then we’re sweaty and gross. At that point, most people would just pass out, but I’m like, “Hey – I’m 32 years old; I’m not standing for this. I’m going to go take a shower!”
Basic training isn’t fun. You do learn some things: you learn to pay attention to detail, to not be late, you get your first taste of esprit de corps – what it means to build relationships with a group of people that are enduring the same experiences together. They beat you down, and then they build you up again. But I will say this: it took me about 9 months for the brainwashing to subside! It was several months into our first duty station when my wife – the Air Force officer – sits down next to me and says, “Listen, I’ll do the laundry. But I’m not folding those t-shirts like that any more!”
Is there something to the drum that speaks to you as a Jew? Its message?
JD: It has a message that brings out the spirit. Drums have always been part of something sacred. Drummers are ancient torch bearers, transmitting information from one civilization to another; or in the military, as signals for the line to load the guns and fire simultaneously.
Truthfully, rhythm is everywhere. Your heart is beating. The clock is ticking. My son, who was just on my shoulders, was swaying back and forth in a certain rhythm. You hear the door close in one place, and then close again someplace else – that makes two sounds, and it technically defines a tempo. The idea of the torch bearer is to command that rhythm and put it in context. If I just hit my drum, it doesn’t mean anything. But in the context of a reggae band, it’s very different. There’s something about the message of being a rhythmic vehicle that touches people on a spiritual level. And I think that because we’re all tied into this rhythm of life, of nature, so we can all feel it. The other day I was playing a call and response with my students and we were all getting into it, and I told them, “If that doesn’t make you want to tap your toe or move your head, you need to check your pulse.” There’s something about this connectivity. Let’s put it this way: if we speed up a 3 against 2 polyrhythm, it will eventually reach two pitches, and create the musical interval known as a perfect fifth. Think about that: in a way, when you slow everything down and pay attention, you get rhythm.
What does that slowing down mean? For us Jews, that might mean Shabbat. Or even simpler, it might mean to stop and breathe real deeply and be still. And from a metaphysical standpoint, Genesis talks of G-d creating the world with breath – I’d say that in its root, there’s probably rhythm there. Every week we read a Torah portion, and then we rewind and start again for Simchas Torah; it’s like getting to the end of a measure and starting the next measure. It’s a part of it all. Not to mention all the melody that takes place in the Jewish experience: the melody of a service can tell you the time of day, the time of year, but that’s another conversation.
Talk a little bit about your Navy Lay Leader experience.
JD: I loved it, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone, if you have the opportunity. It gives you leadership experience and provides you with the chance to make a difference. We were stationed in Italy. The last active synagogue in Southern Italy is in Naples. Usually, we celebrated Shabbat with maybe one or two other families. But one year we did Pesach, and Rabbi Irv Elson from the JWB came out to conduct the seder, and we had 60 people in attendance! It was super meaningful, although organizing it was really intense. Between phone calls and dealing with logistics, I probably put in 70 hours of work during the week leading up to Rabbi Elson coming. It was crazy. But I got the chance to meet the CO of the base, and I was eventually awarded the Military Outstanding Service Medal from that and a few other volunteer experiences.
You have two children, and you’re trying to raise them to be Jewishly educated and involved. What does that look like in your home?
JD: My kids are learning to read Hebrew via a website called JewishInteractive.org, so we use a lot of their materials and ideas. I try to say Shema with the kids every night. Also, we have rules for Shabbos. At some point, they were doing jujitsu on Saturday, but I told the coach that I need my Shabbos back… We try to keep it really simple, and it’s a challenge not to do other things, but we try our best. We light candles on Friday night, and we’ll do kiddush for lunch. We also study together: there’s a three volume set called “You Be the Judge” where the kids get to be a rabbi who makes decisions on cases. You guys at Aleph sent us a great copy of Pirkei Avot, so we study that together. They read the Hebrew, and we go through the explanations and anecdotes. We study something from the weekly Torah portion – we get stuff from chabad.org and other websites – and maybe we’ll take a nap. And after Shabbos, we do Havdallah… As we put the candle out, and we’re singing Eliyahu, sometimes that gets me choked up…
But being in the military and not being surrounded by a community is a challenge. It’s not like I’m in the same location as my parents, and I go to the same synagogue as they do with my kids and they see their friends. Every three years we change locations. It’s a real challenge.
You wrote two books on drumming. Tell us a little bit about them.
JD: The first book is called “The Science of Time”, and it contains the principles that I’m teaching my junior Marines and Sailors right now. It’s really about how to listen to music, and how to predict, from a drummer’s perspective, what you’re going to encounter as well as some of other ideas like syntax and timekeeping. I find that a lot of younger drummers are dealing with internal metronomic issues – interdependence and such. And if your rhythm is not strong, you’re already a fish out of the water. You can also have a great sense of time, but not know how to respond in a musical situation. So that first book is a read. It’s mostly philosophical, along with some of my stories and experiences. I actually talk about spirituality, as well as synesthesia, and the attributes you need to “make it” in the business, by being likeable and easy to get along with, and all of these things very much apply to the military.
The second book is called “Interpretations for Syncopation”. That’s more of a niche book. There’s a book written by Ted Reed, and it’s one of the all-time greatest drum books (Progressive Steps to Syncopation for the Modern Drummer). It has these iconic pages of syncopation. I wanted to take these ideas and explore them to help drummers become more musical. Some of it is pushing the boundaries within what you can do drumistically. They’re a lot of fun. There are over a hundred variations I present, and drummers can interpret them to a great degree. I even periodically take the book out myself and practice these exercises. I will eventually get around to putting them on YouTube. Both of the books are available on my website, jonahdavid.com.
MU1 Jonah David, thank you for your time, as well as the incredible insight and perspective you’ve provided! We wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors!
Originally published in the Passover 2021 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.