Young musician combines politics and passion for art |

Young musician combines politics and passion for art

Dan BurkhartIsaac James (right) plays with his teacher Batantou Ferdinand during the Congolese Dance and Drum Workshop at the Encompass Conference and Retreat Center on San Juan Ridge Sunday.
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Many Nevada County residents have seen Isaac James practically grow up on stage.

James, 20, has studied music for 15 years and performed in various ensembles for 10 years. His first performance was at St. Joseph’s Cultural Center, playing drums as part of a duo during a United Nations benefit.

James spends at least a few hours each day practicing, sometimes past midnight. His first instrument was a marimba, followed by conga drum, recorder and stand-up bass.

For four years, James has performed frequently in the area, often with Roots Down One (playing Afro-Celtic-jazz) and with Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser, sometimes before crowds of a few thousand.

Describing himself as a part-time introvert, that’s not the case when he steps on stage.

“Usually I don’t get nervous,” James explained. “You transcend your whole state of being when on stage. The music, the energy you’re putting out – you create that dream space, that dream time.”

Cai Sorlien, who has worked with James in area African dance and drum classes for more than 10 years, said, “Isaac’s a great performer, a very generous performer. He gives a lot to the audience because he’s very natural. He’s always been outgoing – even as a kid – when he performs.”

Music has always been an integral part of James’ life. His father was a vocalist, percussionist and choreographer for Motown star Marvin Gaye; his grandfather was a blues guitarist and singer.

As a baby, James hit pots and pans, instead of instruments.

Sorlien, an organizer of the 10-day Congolese Dance and Drum Workshop held in the Nevada City area for 18 years, credits James’ mother, Rachel Kelly, with being exceptionally supportive of her son’s music.

“She made a lot of sacrifices in her personal life so Isaac could take workshops at the camp and year-round classes, and she bought all his drums and equipment,” Sorlein said.

Kelly knew that even as a toddler James had talent and should have lessons.

“When he was 18 months, we had a big party for 300 people. Isaac climbed up to the drum set in his diapers and started playing. Everyone stopped; they were floored with this little baby keeping beat. He was always around a lot of musicians. He would join in with sticks, cymbals, whatever he could get his hands on.”

Kelly, a former singer, has remained connected to the arts – her Flying Hare Salon in Grass Valley is also a gallery.

“My mom was and still is always there for me,” James said. “She’s always attracted music and art energy. She’s the one who first brought me to the Congolese camp.”

James is attending his 14th Congolese Dance and Drum Workshop, which runs through Sunday at the Encompass Conference and Retreat Center on San Juan Ridge.

After Sunday, James will continue his camp studies with one of the teachers, Paris-based Batantou Ferdinand, whom Sorlien calls the best Congolese drummer in the world.

For two years Ferdinand, fellow workshop teacher Borrina Mapaka, James and a few other students have followed the workshop around California, conducting classes and performing. James hopes to study with Ferdinand a few months in Paris next year.

James, who has lived here since the 1980s, would like to promote unity by drumming and working with community service projects throughout Third World countries within the next few years.

Open to most genres, including jazz, rock, hip hop, tribal drum, bluegrass and reggae, James cares more about what a song may convey than its genre. His originals have always been political and focused on promoting unity.

“One of the ways to come together is through music, which is a universal tool for healing,” James said. “If Christians and Muslims were drumming together, there would be no arrogance today.”

“Music is inspiration. It brings a spiritual force that is really needed in society.”


Isaac James will perform folk soul with Kipchoge Spencer at Ridgestock 2002 at North Columbia Schoolhouse Cultural Center on Aug. 17.

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