John Hayden

John Hayden is an adventure traveler with artisan friends around the world that create rhythm instruments for his company Jamtown®. Since 1995 (~25 years!) he facilitates in-the-moment, hands-on rhythm play for youth, community and business. His daughter Lily, now 12, showed him that none of that stuff works on 2 year old’s. Since then he also writes & performs kids music with ukulele and Jamtown props - The Howdy Band! He produces the Northwest Folklife ‘Rhythm Tent’ Stage since 2004 and teaches hand drum classes weekly. Check out the new virtual FAM JAM Challenge program – a ‘found sound’ music adventure for the whole family – and find other programs and Jamtown® award-winning, fair trade products for sale at Follow JamtownLive rhythm events and travel adventures at Instagram/JamtownLive, FB/JamtownLive.

John's Story

Play A Beat You Can Repeat

The original Jamtown tagline is a call to action. It’s what to do with what you find inside a Jamtown Bag. Relax. Channel the musician’s laid-back attitude. Stay in your lane and enjoy the ride. Let your place in the band unfold. Just Play!
In the 80’s and the 90’s, years before Jamtown had a logo or a tagline, my home parties ended with me passing out instruments (like many of you, I suspect.) I’d let the music play, then turn it down it to reveal the group in full groove. Remarkable fun and decent music, we would laugh in the morning. Inspired by this result and looking for a new path after 15 years in the corporate world, I found myself offering relative strangers a chance to PLAY while guiding bicycle & kayak groups in Mexico. More success! (Except one group…when the instruments were blamed for a week of rain.) Next, I drove around the USA meeting complete strangers by extending my hand with a handmade instrument in one hand and bag in the other - at campgrounds, waiting in lines, or just walking down the street - wherever the spirit struck. I drew two important conclusions as I returned to Seattle after a year on the road. First, fifteen seconds of laid-back play has the power to change a life… ‘I DO have rhythm!’ Second, this is what I am going to do.

So, my quest began in earnest – to help others find their inner musician and to help others find others. Wherever that happens in the world, that’s Jamtown! The year was 1995. LP Music sold me 500 instruments (100 each of Bell, Scraper, Sticks, Shaker and Drum.) My system identified 5 distinct sounds or timbre in the percussion ‘family.’ These voices are each distinct and support listening, dialogue and successful group play. I ordered 100 classic, round bottom backpacks from a Guatemalan contact – in VERY assorted patterns and colors! At Kinko’s, in the middle of the night, I ran 100 copies of The Road to Jamtown - a laid-back, how-to-get-started manual of positive reinforcement. Then cut 100 card decks of 16 Simple Rhythm Cards™. These are 1,2 and 3 beat say/play repeating patterns that remind of familiar sounds we already know (like walking, jogging, the heartbeat resting, or three knocks on a door) and four other cards, one each for Dance, Body Parts, Vocal and ‘The Conductor.’ Instructions? Stack the deck anyway you want and hand out the cards! Finally, invoking the spirit of Kokopelli, the original traveling, musical, mystery archetype musician of North America (and the first inductee into the ‘Rock’ hall of fame), Jamtown the company launched in time for the holidays. (product launch, first logo, early Bag photo above)

Hand Made Fair Trade

Selling most of the bags that first holiday season was a signal from the universe to go deeper….source the instruments from the source and get back on the road. John Avinger of John‘s Music in Seattle was a mentor and great resource. His quirky music shop in Seattle was a United Nations of instruments and the people that sold to him had connections to the source. I remember seeing pictures of Arthur and Babatunde Olatunji and others behind the cash register. Back in Mexico I headed for my first stop, Paracho, Mexico, the town famous for guitar charango and mandolin production due to a proximity to the great rosewood forests in the State of Michoacán. I wanted rosewood claves - the ‘Sticks’ in the Jamtown bag. Following the Celestine Prophecy approach (James Redfield, 1993) my days unfolded like a story book. Turns out the owner of guitar store on the corner of the plaza also ran a guitar factory. He took me to the artisans’ home where claves are turned on a lathe sitting in the front yard of a very modest home. The more skilled and better paid workers fashioned rosewood for finer instruments in the factory. Though my Spanish really sucked, I created a relationship and struck a deal. Then the store owner agreed to coordinate the export, which is complex for a businessman - much less a common woodworker. It was fantastic gesture on his part.

Over the next five years very different stories with similar results played out. Common themes were revealed. Artisans were raising families doing proud work in far less fortunate circumstances than the average American can imagine. But their dreams for a better life for their children reminded me of my parents, members of the greatest generation and survivors of the Great Depression and World War II. The people and families I met (and meet) profoundly changed my perspective on life. We are all, truly, more alike than different. And what is normal for us in the USA, is not normal at all for MOST of the rest of the world. What I see is an appreciation for the simple pleasures in life. It is a blessing to receive frequent reminders that family, relationship, laughter and love are the most important things.

The magic that artisans create with their hands is another theme that repeats no matter the continent. Regionally sourced raw materials are transformed into traditional rhythm instruments in a manner passed down through generations; bamboo, nuts and seeds of all kinds, wood scraps, animal hides, scrap iron and gourds. Burned, carved, woven, cleaned, dried, nailed, stretched, cut, sanded, polished- the work is repetitive, and the skill is refined. These themes repeated as I explored Peru, Bolivia and Chile. Then the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali. East Africa and Zimbabwe. And finally, Ghana in West Africa, where my mastery of the English was once again welcome. I spent time in other countries too but did not always find a rich and thriving musical instrument culture. Back home again it became clear a bottleneck was forming. The Jamtown Sales Department (me) always stood between sending a fax (yes, fax!) and a wire transfer to an artisan with news of a new order.

It 1999, the Fair Trade Federation (FTF) crossed my path. A trade association of like-minded small businesses run by adventure travelers like me. Today, each of the 250 retail and wholesale companies in North America work directly with artisans, cooperatives and non-governmental organization’s (NGOs) around the world. Here, I found my people and a world of friendship, business mentorship, and a few shoulders to cry on. All of us in the fair trade world have stories we would rather forget. I’m still working on trying to forget the rainy November day in Seattle when I opened a container full of drums from Ghana so full of mold the skins were no longer intact. Think cottage cheese. Wait...FORGET cottage cheese and move forward! It’s like many small businesses, highs than lows, more mission than business.

There are 10 principles that define fair trade relationships with producers. These help buyers in North America understand how companies interact with their supply chain. Transparency guides the process and helps determine the all-important purchase price. That means we openly discuss (after establishing trust) raw material costs, seasonality factors, labor, equipment, supplies, quantity pricing (which doesn’t really exist in the fair trade world) and administrative overhead factors (quality control, export documentation, banking, currency exchange, etc., etc., etc.) Fair traders typically pay 50% upfront at the time and order is placed which provides working capital and an advance. Balance payment is often paid when the order is completed, before it is shipped or delivered. We build long-term relationships to create more certainty and predictability for artists and families. We invest in raw material stockpiles and fund pre-harvest arrangements with the farmers who grow raw materials used by the producers (gourds, for example.) Toxic materials are avoided and eliminated. Working on three continents means I visit artisans about every three or four years. And while I am now greeted at the airport, I still arrive with a backpack! For more info click on FTF above.

1,2 Back to the Groove

The DCFG is my other professional family – and my connections and relationships grow deeper each time we gather and play together (especially last month!) My drum community roots sprouted in the 90’s. John’s Music was an epicenter of activity. The Seattle World Rhythm Festival’s stellar reputation was earned in these years. It was chocked-full of great workshops from world-class teachers. The great Northwest Drum Circle on Sunday afternoons was 400 strong. I remember applying and getting turned down for presenting a workshop. I was a vendor still learning and earning my stripes as a teacher. That kicked my ass :0) But it’s true. My focus is and was on Jamtown to support artisans around the globe and my own small village too. I tip my cap to those who live the life of a full-time DCF troubadour.

Over the years my DCF skills have grown. And, I have also developed a toddler specialty focus following the birth of my daughter Lily (now 12) (songs on piano and ukulele using Jamtown props.) As inquiries for rhythm-based events show up. I say, YES! And, the future is bright! Last month, I completed two co-facilitated Village Music Circle Three 3 Day Trainings (thank you Nancy in Colorado, Jeni in California and Arthur in Virginia next week.) I am part of the Americas team that will carry the VMC protocol into the future. Which brings us to 2020 and Jamtown’s 25th year. As I reflect upon my dream of self-employment, travel with purpose, rhythm & music, worldwide friendship and ethical business practice, I am most excited for the future :0)