Heidi Joubert’s story begins with a classic drum kit in apartheid South Africa; at the tender age of 17, she left her kit behind and moved across the world to London, began busking, discovered cajón, ‘box’ in Spanish, and swiftly became an icon for cajón players across the world through her simple, easy-to-follow cajón lessons on YouTube. Friendly, gorgeous, extremely energetic, and totally immersed in recording her band, Fernando’s Kitchen‘s first CD (Musica Fina), Tom Tom Magazine was lucky enough to pin Heidi down for a quick Skype session.
Name: Heidi Joubert
Hometown: London, via South Africa (Heidi became an official U.K. citizen the week she spoke to Tom Tom Magazine).
Current band: Fernando’s Kitchen
Kit: The cajón, simple as that
Tom Tom Magazine: When and where did you start playing cajón?
Heidi Joubert: Truthfully, everything started with busking and all my music has developed from that. But before my family moved to London, which was one week before I was 18, I had a drum kit and I was taking simple lessons; amateur drumming. Then I just started playing sax on the South Bank in London with my mum, who plays piano, and my dad. I was a little bit of a rebel and I loved feeling free at that stage. That was where I met Sebastian Diez, from Spain, and he taught me the cajón with traditional Flamenco rhythms. I combined what he taught me with my knowledge of traditional drum kit playing. For the first 2-3 years I played outside, just busking. You pack up your batteries, amps, microphones, stands, and just play outside. That’s how I developed my style, and really learned stamina. It’s cold out there!
Your mom played an acoustic piano on the street? That sounds awesome!
No, she played an electric piano, but that would be a good gig, if you could get an acoustic piano out there.
So your entire family moved from South Africa to busk in London. How did your family know you could make enough money to live?
My brother is a virtuoso guitarist. He practiced nine hours a day, that kind of kid. He started the London Guitar Academy, but before that he was paying in Covent Garden, and selling CDs—you just put ‘suggested donation’ really small on the corner of the sign and its legal—he made a really good living, even rented an apartment in the center of London, in a good neighborhood. He was our connection, our proof; we knew you could do really well busking in London. Busking really started it all—without busking I wouldn’t have met Sebastian, or learned how hard it is to perform constantly. My voice took a beating from singing for so long in extremely cold weather, and my hands took a beating. It takes you awhile to learn the art of layering! You know, wear two sweaters on top of another wool shirt? Important stuff I didn’t learn in South Africa.
Are you in any other bands aside from Fernando’s Kitchen?
Truthfully, the last seven years of work are going into this one CD Fernando’s Kitchen is making now. I’m looking forward to playing with new musicians in the future, but now we’re just really busy.
You’re on the Wikipedia page for cajón! That’s basically the modern-day equivalent of finding yourself in the encyclopedia under ‘cajón.’ How did you get there?
Yeah, I know, wow. That’s actually a photo of us busking in Cambridge, London, but I have no idea how it got there. My friend contacted me a while ago saying, ‘Heidi, YOU’RE ON WIKIPEDIDA.’ But anyone writes those things, you know? To be honest with you, I just thank God. I was just screwing around and things fell into place. This is the perfect example of grace and how God likes to take your screw-ups and make them into plus-points—he’s kind of like, an expert at doing that. I really dig that, because sometimes you work really hard and you’re good at it, but he doesn’t always just give things to those who deserve it: God likes to find grace in everything.
Do you admire any female drummers in particular? Did you model your style after anyone?
Mmm, tough question. I’m not that schooled, really, I’m self-schooled. I spent three years just playing on the streets, and there was no one to teach me in London. When I put up my first video, I didn’t expect anyone to watch it or share it—none of that was on the menu. Maybe someone can use this, I thought, maybe someone can learn from it. Actually, I read the Tom Tom interview with the drummer for Lenny Kravitz [Cindy Blackman], and I liked the answer she gave to the sexist question. Obviously people like to make a thing about it, it’s just one of those things. But For me it’s not about girl or guy. So if I could pick someone, I’d say Jeff Ballard, because he’s awesome. He really knows how to play the drums like an instrument, he knows how to make them talk; he knows how to make them play softly—I need to learn that.
Cajón has a really complex history: people say the cajón originated with African slaves in Peru, but there are different theories. Do you identify with any of these histories?
Right. I’ve read and heard the African slave theory, about how they weren’t allowed to keep drums so they just started paying on fishing boxes. Coming from South Africa, I was born before apartheid was finished, and an early memory was hate and dislike towards this rubbish of a difference between white and black people. When you start saying someone is lower than you because of this difference, this really ridiculous difference of different colored skin—I really hated that so so much. My family didn’t get into that kind of thinking even though we were white. My dad was working with the government that played a major role in the switchover to Mandela—there was going to be a civil war. Thank god that didn’t happen. And anyway, screw that, you find a way. Love, life, music: whatever the darkness wants to do, wherever it takes over, life and joy and happiness and music mean something, it means more than anything. If people were playing with this box when they were oppressed, and if their drums were taken away, well I can identify with that.
When your passport arrives, will you come visit us in New York and give a few lessons?
I would love to. Really soon I hope, hopefully within the next two years! We’re planning a European tour first, but we would love to come to New York, it’s definitely on our list.
Rachel Miller for Tom Tom Magazine