David Willingham Used To Think Reggae Was Beneath Him. Now It's His Career.

David Willingham has been a staple of the Dallas reggae community for as long as he's lived here. From the Monday jam sessions he helps host at the Balcony Club to production on several different projects including Two Men & A Machine and Aton, Willingham integrates Jamaican vibes and tradition into a funk-infused rhythm that trademarks the sound as his own.

Since 2008, Willingham has spent several weeks a year in Jamaica, collaborating with the royalty of the reggae world. His first album, Reunify, features the skill of legends such as Sly Dunbar and local hero Bernard Wright, both of whom have toured with huge names such as Peter Tosh and Charles Earland. But Willingham's drive goes far past featuring notable musicians. That same debut record included a video that Willingham and his band made about a show they put on for the homeless population living under I-45 in 2007.

"That year, the city passed a law against panhandling, which also encompassed feeding the homeless," Willingham explains. "So if we couldn't feed them like we used to [making sandwiches and passing them out], we were going to play a show they would enjoy." 

Willingham recently played the 8th Annual Denton Harvest Festival, offering up a set that combined his original tunes with a new band. We caught up with him before his set to find out what he's been jamming lately.

Currently jamming: Kultiration, Sly and Robbie, Black Uhuru
"Kultiration is a band from Sweden which is reggae, but they rap in Swedish and it's setup like a jazz band -- a stand-up bass, sometimes an accordion, etc. Their music sounds like European and reggae, which is really nice. I have different playlists for the car and studying. My study playlist for drums includes a lot of 1982, 1983, 1984 Sly [Dunbar] and Robbie [Shakespeare]. Black Uhuru from Jamaica and Black Seeds from New Zealand too."

Inspired by: the people who have mentored him the art of music
"My musical education was done a lot on the street, but I also went to UNT, which helped me tie things together and gave me a classical background. On the streets, I was with Claude Johnson, who was a baritone sax player for Ray Charles and played piano with Marchel Ivery. Dwayne Clemons also taught me a lot; he played with [jazz composers] Sun Ra and Curtis Bradshaw. Bradshaw is an amazing composer, artist, ranger who sent me on the road to the University of North Texas and helped start the arts in North Texas. I was in high school when there was nothing to go see, so I sat on the patio of Sambuca in Deep Ellum and watched all these jazz musicians do their things. The guy who got me into reggae was named Milik, which means "king" in Jamaican. I always gave him hell about how reggae was so simple and easy to play. He told me this: 'Reggae may be harmonically inferior to you, but it's rhythmically and spiritually superior.' And my infatuation grew from there."

Where the two roads meet: a new genre of music Willingham calls "funkae"
"My sound and my voice are headed more toward reggae jam funk, which I call 'funkae.' I want all of the tradition and feel of reggae, but I'm from Dallas, Texas, so it's got to be funky. I'm always branching off from reggae because I'm always in so many projects. That's what keeps me feeling fresh. Versatility is sometimes a necessity because music is what I do for a living. I have to be able to play country, I have to be able to play singer-songwriter [fare] or percussion. But all those things come out of my young-at-heart spirit. I'm currently playing with Spoonfed Tribe on keyboard and trumpet, [Plano-based] Kapow on electric drums and I want to start up another Monday night reggae jam thing again."

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