At DC Beat Club, jamming out is the name of the game


A participant in the DC Beat Club summer program works on a Korg synthesizer Wednesday at the Watha T. Daniel-Shaw Neighborhood Library in Shaw. (Danard Grays For The Washington Post)

In the basement of Shaw Neighborhood Library Wednesday afternoon, about a dozen kids are eating ice cream before they make beats. On two tables in the large meeting room downstairs, a Macbook, and various synthesizers and drum machines are set up in front of the speakers. “There’s a sink right there. I bought fancy hand soap. You guys don’t know how good you have it,” the library employee says, telling the kids to make sure to wash up before playing with the equipment. “It’s about to be a party in here,” she says. The party is DC Beat Club, and it was started by a librarian named Barrett Jones. The program, based at various D.C. Public Libraries, gives kids a chance to experiment with musical elements not normally found in your average music class. Going strong three years in, Jones still loves giving kids the opportunity to create in a no-pressure environment. “What I’m trying to do, is just get the kids feeling like they might be interested in making music. The sole goal of this is to just maybe [help] somebody who doesn’t realize that they like to play music, because they’ve only been exposed to piano or trumpet, or things that that are hard to pick up,” Jones, a Shaw resident himself, says. “I mean, when I was a kid I was in band. I flunked band because I had to [play] the cornet, and I couldn’t get good sounds. It’s hard. There’s a big learning curve. And this stuff, there’s no learning curve.” In the room, a couple of the kids are particularly interested in dubstep. Jones teaches them how to loop their voices. “Whooooo wants the microphone?” he asks, guiding the “production” without being too intrusive. The pitch shifter turns out to be a huge hit. What’s clear is that the basic fun of the technology is a big part of the draw. Making funny voices is always a good time, no matter how old you are. Yigel and Yanna Jones, brother and sister, enjoyed talking into the mics the most. “They’re fun, they change your voice, apparently,” Yanna, 8 said. “I could loop and make my voice just keep on going,” Yigel, 10, said with a smile. The two spent quite a bit of time taking turns saying “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” in to the microphone. Barrett records everything made into his Macbook, and edits each session down to post on SoundCloud. That way, the kids can have some level of agency over their work, because they can download and share the songs, and get some version of a finished product. The fun, collaborative vibe is infectious. Library employees even get in on the fun in some ways, either dancing with the kids or listening to individual works made on one of the many Korg Kaossilator 2‎ devices Barrett provides. They’re handheld portable touch screen synthesizers that generate drum beats, basslines, chords and make loops. “This single thing, you can just be riding on the Metro or the bus, and just making beats,” he says. About once a week, Jones loads up his old Volkswagen with a suitcase full of various machines. The green suitcase is itself older than I am, outfitted on one side with an old Eastern Airlines sticker from what was then just known as National Airport. He calls his operation “totally lo-fi.” At 49, he looks like the kind of guy that if he told you he once played with Weezer, you’d be hard pressed not to believe him. A lifelong rock-and-roll guitarist, he got into dance music through his wife. He also happens to be impossibly nice, which helps when dealing with groups of kids on a regular basis. He’s not looking to fast track kids to becoming EDM DJs, he just wants them to have fun. “It’s really just trying to spark that, just get that spark, and get that little ‘I can do this, I can make some music,'” he says, while snapping his fingers. “Then there’s also this group thing, this collaborative thing. Trying to bring them together, I mean, it’s hard, but sometimes you can tell they’re listening to one another, collaborating, making music with other people. That’s a real joy. It’s something that I think has kind of gotten lost over the years.” Over the course of an hour, the sound coming from the speakers is a cacophony of experimental noise. Every once and again someone snags a particularly catchy loop and runs with it. It sounds like exactly what it is: a bunch of kids playing with music machines. And it’s perfect, because you can see the stages from wonder, to excitement, to creativity and success achieved in a small window. Jones wants to build on that. “We’d like to have this equipment be available all the time, in the libraries for the kids to check out. The goal is to actually train the kids at how to run this equipment themselves, so they can either come to the library and make music themselves, or even, take equipment somewhere else and use it,” he said of DC Beat Club’s goals. “The next step is trying to set up a training program to not only spark the interest of musicians, but train the kids how to do it themselves.” It’s a possibility that excites Maia Jones, mother of Yanna and Yigel. “I think it’s cool, I think it’s really neat,” she said. Yigel “has a big interest in music, period. He just loves music. She does too, but he wants to get into all the instruments and everything.” They live in the neighborhood and attend various programming events at the library. “Now he might want to try some DJ stuff,” she said with a laugh. Next week, Jones will head over to Northwest One Library in Mount Vernon Square. After that, it’s Petworth later in the week and Benning the following week. But no matter the location, his philosophy remains the same. “I’m a musician, and I also just like to jam and fool around. My idea of playing music is really play, you know what I’m saying?,” he said. “I don’t read music… I have a basic grasp of music theory, but the emphasis, my emphasis, has always been jamming and discovering music through just playing.”

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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