Slapjazz Danny settles his muscular frame onto a stool in a La Mesa coffee shop and he goes to work, first with his left hand, then his right. The hands move from thigh to chest, palms slapping down as they go, producing a range of percussive impressions that resemble a flock of city pigeons or a locomotive.
"Here's the deal." The voice rolls out in a baritone both astonishing and luxurious; one wonders if the man can also sing. "I started beating on my mom's coffee table when I was a kid. She didn't like that, so she put me in a band, a marching band. I mastered the bass drum. Then the tenor drum. And finally, the snare." And then he stopped using drums or coffee tables altogether and took up a music with roots that occupy an historical space that dates back before the advent of slavery in America.
Slapjazz Danny Barber of El Cajon is a body percussionist. He makes music with the most rudimentary of instruments: his own hands, resonating on the flats and the hollows of his own body.
"Slaves used this as a means of communication after their owners took away their drums when they figured out that what the slaves had brought from Africa was more than just idle music. Drumming was a means to communicate with each other." Drumming was a sort of rhythmic Morse Code, Barber says, that spoke of clandestine meetings, or of running.
"When I was 16, Todd Barber, my cousin, showed me Hambone — in the tradition, body percussion is called Hambone. His grandfather showed him. I knew it was something I had to do. I spent countless hours beating on myself to master the art form." The grin that opens up the features below Barber's shaved dome says he's not kidding. He is contented in his mastery of the body percussion art.
Slapjazz Danny will appear at the Sixth International Body Music Festival, November 5–10, staged in San Francisco and Oakland, along with 20 other body-music artists from the U.S., Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey, the Canary Islands, Greece, and Canada.
Barber, 52, has lent his rudimentary percussion to various albums (Drum Sex, by Brent Lewis, for one). His stuff has been sampled, and he's been featured in live gigs with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Bayou Brothers Band. "Leland Spoonful Collins — we do college dates and private parties, too."
The pair appeared at Idyllwild Jazz in the Pines at the request of a local jazz bassist named Marshall Hawkins, and Barber has made money as a body percussionist, enough to supplement his day gig at the Marriott. Likewise, body percussion has taken Slapjazz Danny halfway around the world.
"Last year, I was in Istanbul, Turkey." The Body Music Festival, he says, truly is international. As for the Turks and Hambone? "They loved it. People there had seen my videos on YouTube. It was like I was a celebrity in Istanbul, a sports star. People asking for my autograph. I'm, like, you gotta be kidding me."