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With metal African instruments, Joel Laviolette makes ‘musical rain’

Austinite also runs Rattletree School of Marimba and Mhumhi Records.

Michael Barnes
Joel Laviolette is the artistic director and a teacher at Rattletree School of Marimba.

When Joel Laviolette lived in Zimbabwe, he played with a band several times a week in the ghetto bars of Chitungwiza. Not infrequently during these gigs, people would be seized by more than just a love of music.

“On one particular occasion, while we were playing, a man became possessed,” the Austinite says. “He jumped up on stage and knocked over all the microphone stands while flailing around. The band just kept playing, and other people in the audience just had to carry him off the stage until he calmed back down and joined the others in dancing.”

The band’s primary instrument was the mbira, a two-handed thumb piano often used for spirit-possession ceremonies. The Shona people pluck its metal keys, creating layered, rhythmic sounds of unearthly beauty.

“Its their national instrument,” Laviolette says. “It’s a spiritual instrument as well. I’ve heard it called ‘musical rain.’”

The band leader and founder of Rattletree School of Marimba — the mbira and the marimba, more familiar to Americans, share kindred metallic sounds — first encountered Zimbabwean music in New Mexico. Laviolette, now 38, was a jazz artist at the time, practicing and composing his own music up to eight hours a day on the guitar.

“I was driving myself crazy making cyclical music with multiple melodies,” he says, “When I first heard mbira music, I realized: What I was trying to create already existed. It’s like a music family of melodies, all talking and interacting.”

Telling musical tales

“Joel is a storyteller in the truest sense,” says David Messier, music producer and owner of Austin’s Same Sky Productions. “He’s the explorer who has gone to some place and come back with tales and new magic. The new magic is how he’s reimagined this music, added electricity and relevancy.”

Laviolette, who split his childhood between New Hampshire, New Mexico, Hawaii and Texas, was, by his own telling, something of a slacker in his youth.

“I was kinda bored with school more than anything,” he says. “But separate from schools, I hung out with older musicians and started on the jazz guitar at age 11.”

The son of a Realtor and a property appraiser with some French Canadian ancestors, he made an early commitment to music and headed to the University of North Texas in Denton, home of one of the nation’s finest jazz programs.

His conversion experience in New Mexico escorted him away from jazz and into an immersion in African music.

“I felt this incredible relief,” he says. “I just needed to learn this.”

Laviolette secured one mbira and took lessons from the best artist-teachers he could find, including those trained by mbira master Dumisani Maraire, who died in 1999.

Next thing you know, Laviolette had dropped out of college to play mbira eight hours a day. He joined a New Mexican band called Jaka. While Albuquerque audiences liked his music, the city lacked the infrastructure for a musical community. So he moved to Austin in 2006 and found a regular job fixing guitar amps at South Austin Music.

“I found a girl,” he says. “And a music scene that was the most supportive in the country.”

The Rattletree vibe

“Joel’s perspective and training are decidedly different from those of most musicians, not just in Austin, but anywhere,” says John Lane, director of percussion studies at Sam Houston State University. “His journey — the obsession, the passion for mbira, marimba and African music — informs his teaching and drives his work. Joel ignites the fire of self-discovery, joy and ultimately fulfillment in himself and in his students.”

Laviolette’s current girlfriend, Rakefet Avramovitz, has joined his pursuit and now serves as program director at the Rattletree School, founded in 2013. The little complex on Thornton Road in South Austin plans to hold an open-house-style celebration on Friday. The school, which includes youth and adult bands, customarily throws monthly community gatherings.

According to colleagues, Laviolette is known as an energetic, ingenious teacher who is especially good at inspiring young musicians.

“If you know in your heart what you love to do, then do it,” Laviolette told Percussive Notes magazine in 2013. “That is where you will find your strength to be the best in the world at what you do. Do not try to be other people; they will always be better at being themselves than you will be. Be yourself and no one can do it better.”

His marimba band, which transposes traditional mbira music from the Shona, is also called Rattletree. Avramovitz leads SeVana, a women’s marimba group.

“How many other musicians do you know that build their own instruments, including all of the electronic elements?” Lane says. “I don’t know many drummers who build their own drums. Then there’s the grassroots efforts of building a community around those instruments and, specifically, that music.”

Marimba bands are usually composed of three soprano marimbas, two tenors, one baritone and one bass. Musicians move around from one instrument to another.

“You can play high-energy African dance music on it,” Laviolette says. “The biggest thing we run up against is that people don’t know what a marimba is.”

Marimbas were introduced into Zimbabwean schools in the 1960s so that all the different tribes could play together. Zimbabwe suffers from some of the most dysfunctional politics in the world. Perhaps wisely, Laviolette, who first visited the country formerly known as Southern Rhodesia in 1998, won’t talk about it.

“There’s politics and then there are people,” he says. “Economically, things haven’t been good, but better than 10 years ago. Things are picking back up. Politics is a dangerous game out there. People take it very seriously.”

He also runs the nonprofit Mhumhi Records, which preserves traditional southern African music, captured in the field by Laviolette.

“I’m meeting amazing musicians, recording them and making my record collection better,” he says. “They are teaching me this incredible stuff.”

Rattletree’s latest album, “Joy,” was recorded at Messier’s Same Sky studios in Austin.

“It struck me one day in the studio with Joel that we were working on a piece of music that was over 1,000 years old,” Messier says. “It is like time travel, isn’t it? Working on something so deep into human history. I mean, if you think for a second about what we consider old, musically, it’s laughable. The ‘oldies’ stations aren’t playing any mbira music from Zimbabwe. Most people, musicians included, can’t get their head around ‘classical’ music, which isn’t even a few hundred years old.”

Rattletree Community Celebration