Well-known percussionist and educator dies at 54

Geoff John plays in a drum circle in 2010.  - File Photo
Geoff John plays in a drum circle in 2010.
— image credit: File Photo

Geoff Johns, a local percussionist, performer, educator and world music scholar, died on Wednesday, March 20, of cancer. He was 54.

As a performer, Johns was a beloved fixture in the island’s vibrant music community, contributing his talents to several bands. He was also well-known beyond Vashon, appearing on stages at festivals and venues, including Northwest Folklife Festival, Bumbershoot, the Seattle Art Museum, Broadway Center for the Performing Arts, the Bainbridge Performing Arts Center and Benaroya Hall.

He regularly partnered artistically with his wife, Carol Lutra-Johns, a dancer, vocalist and choreographer.

One of the couple’s most visible collaborations was a reliable summer delight: For years, the pair led a raucous brigade of drummers and samba dancers down Vashon Highway during the Strawberry Festival parade. Many of those on the street broke into applause and danced in place to the beat.

As a teacher, Johns was known to thousands of public school students through residencies he conducted through his work with the Washington State Arts Commission and Vashon Allied Arts’ Artists in the Schools programs. For years, he provided drum accompaniment to modern dance classes at Vashon Dance Academy, and he also taught privately and at camps, colleges, universities and music retreats.

His love of music was a lifelong pursuit. He grew up in Maryland but traveled to Ohio in 1976 to study philosophy, religion, music and art at Antioch College. He spent his junior year abroad in Asia, studying Buddhism and music in India and Nepal and working as an English teacher in Tokyo. His further studies took him to Boulder, Colo., where he first studied and then taught at Naropa Institute. He moved to Vashon in 1993.

Johns played an array of percussion instruments and sang in several languages. He also traveled widely, studying and performing with many notable world musicians. He developed a comprehensive system of notation for cross-cultural percussion and produced three CDs: “DRUM! How to Play the Rhythms of Africa and Latin America,” “Bakongo Drumming Music for Dancers” and “The Conga Drummer’s Friend.”

He is survived by his wife, Carol Lutra-Johns, of Vashon, his step-daughter Zoe Clark, of Bothell, and his son Caleb Kai Draper Johns, daughter-in-law Lauryth Orion Johns, granddaughter Isabeau Kiryn Johns and mother JoWynn Johns, all of Vashon. He’s survived by several other family members who live elsewhere.

A community celebration of his life will be held in April, with the date, time and place to be announced.

To help defray the expenses of Johns’ illness and death, islanders can donate money directly to Team Geoff, an account at Puget Sound Cooperative Credit Union. To help in other ways, contact


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