Jonathan Scales is a world traveler, bringing his unique brand of jazz fusion to audiences around the globe. But even by his standards, the first half of 2017 has been an unusually active — and eye-opening — period for the steel pannist. Adding to that excitement, and to celebrate his 33rd birthday, Scales has scheduled a rare hometown concert: The Jonathan Scales Fourchestra (featuring Cody Wright and Shariq Tucker) will play the Asheville Music Hall on Saturday, Sept. 16.
In late August, Scales performed at the music camp run by celebrated bassist Victor Wooten. Just before press time, he gave a TEDx Talk about following through on life goals. The last time Scales played an Asheville date was last November, “And since then, I’ve been to Asia and Africa,” he says. Those trips were the result of Scales’ pursuing a major goal of his own: He auditioned with the State Department and was selected as a cultural ambassador.
The Asia tour began in February and included dates in Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China and Indonesia. “It was pretty awesome to be representing the United States in that way, especially at this time in human history,” he says. And, even though the U.S. had just inaugurated its 45th president — one who’s proving to be globally unpopular — Scales found that “for the most part, [overseas audiences] understand that politics are politics and people are people.”
Scales’ four-week schedule featured public concerts, elementary school performances and recitals for university music students. “We even played at a school in Taiwan for kids with disabilities,” he says.
Scales also took part in many media events. “The interest level was really high,” he says.
A street event in Indonesia attracted more than 1,000 people. “As a touring musician, it’s hard to re-create that,” Scales says. “But when the government is sending you to a random town in Indonesia, it adds to this level of excitement.”
The success of that trip led to a further opportunity for Scales. He received a call from the State Department asking, “Do you want to go to Mauritania?” The musician readily agreed to put a group together and visit the West African country of more than 4 million people.
That excursion included a fancy luncheon at the country’s French Embassy. As with the Asian trip, Scales and his touring musicians enjoyed the opportunity to experience the culture, but they felt their access to people and places was often tightly managed. “So after a couple of days,” Scales says, “I asked to be out of the bubble.”
The cultural attaché in Mauritania eventually agreed and took the Americans on a tour of the “real” country. Scales visited the local fish market, where fishermen brought in huge nets full of manta rays. He went to a home and was treated to a traditional dinner of camel. “Everyone sat on the floor and ate from the same container, using their right hand,” he says.
The band played a show at a youth detention center that “was a pretty intense situation,” Scales says. “I’m pretty sure most of these kids had never seen a band before.” The at-risk youths didn’t speak English, so translators recast questions from Arabic or French into English. Scales recalls one query that stopped him in his tracks: “How can music change our life?”
“I told them that when you have something to focus on, it keeps you on a good track,” the musician says. “Not only is music good for your brain and good for your psyche, but it also gives you that focus.”
He recalls speaking to an elder at the detention center, a man with traditional Moorish garb who “told me that he was very glad that I could play here,” Scales says, “and that it helped his grandson.”
While being driven around, Scales quickly realized just how different life was for people in the poor country. Even as a seasoned world traveler, he marveled at the contrast between existence in Mauritania compared to other places he had visited. “It was definitely a huge vibe change,” he says. “Even from downtown Nouakchott, which I thought was Third World.”
Scales developed the sense that whatever natural resources the country might have were being exported and not much of worth was finding its way back to the citizens of Mauritania. “You could tell that the opportunities we have are just not there,” he says.
But that wasn’t his main takeaway from the experience. Instead, he says that he realized something. “It just looks like devastation there, but they may have things more figured out than we do in terms of what’s important in life,” Scales says. “There’s more a sense of community and family. There’s a sense of what’s real, and what matters.”
WHO: Jonathan Scales Fourchestra with Chuck Lichtenberger and DJ Marley Carroll
WHERE: Asheville Music Hall, 31 Patton Ave., ashevillemusichall.com
WHEN: Saturday, Sept. 16, 9 p.m. $12 advance/$15 day of show