I had the pleasure of speaking to the inspirational Babatunde Lea recently, a musician who brings out the best in his bands, his music and himself.
Jazzreview: I haven’t heard music as dynamic with a sense of message since the ‘60s. How did this come about?
Babatunde Lea: Simply put, I have been doing the same thing for the past thirty-six years. My whole introduction and the immersion into music has been about the function and the spirit of music, the two are synonymous for me. From my early influences of Babatunde Olatunji, Armando Peraza, Mongo Santamaria, Leon Thomas and McCoy Tyner, and my path was pretty well set.
I studied African rhythms with Bill Summers in his group Bata Koto, in the early seventies; it opened a great vista of possibilities for me. I also learned a great deal from the African cultures that I ran into while studying their rhythms. The Dagbamba people of West Africa state that in order to become a master drummer, you not only have to play the drums exceptionally, but also that you must know about the community and act as a sage in the community as well. When I read that, I took it to heart and have been trying to live up to the challenge ever since.
Jazzreview: How did you develop an all-star talent of artists with such extraordinary accomplishment?
Babatunde Lea: This level of artistry becoming available to me for my own recordings began in 1991. I was doing the pre-production for my second recording under my own name, Level of Intent. I went to my friend John Purcell to help me line up a roster of musicians and he hooked me up with his manager at that time, Suzi Reynolds. Between the both of them, they came up with an extraordinary line up that I couldn’t believe Jon Faddis, Frank Lacy, Charnette Moffett, Kenny Barron, Tommy James, Santi Debriano, Hilton Ruiz, and Frankie Colon.
After that recording, I tried to use many of those artists that I could on future outings. Hilton Ruiz has been on the last three recordings of mine. This is Frank Lacy’s second recording with me. Suzi Reynolds introduced to me and brought on board Mario Rivera and John Benitez. Kevin Jones is a student of mine from my home town, Englewood, NJ, and he went on to travel the world with the likes of Whitney Houston and Archie Shepp, just to name a few. His versatility is obvious in the diverse genres that he has excelled in. I now have been performing with Hilton Ruiz’s trio the Blue Note in Vegas, and we are going abroad for two weeks beginning in February. Suffice it to say, I have been extremely fortunate to work and record with the artist I have.
Jazzreview: Who were your earlier influences?
Babatunde Lea: My earliest influences were my family, playing drums. Even the women in my family played drums. My aunt was the first woman to play marching drums in a band back in Virginia in the 40s and so that was my first introduction to the drums. My family loved Afro-Cuban music so I learned how to rumba before I could walk [laughter]. So that was all around me. I started to play marching drums when I was 11 and was on the drum line when I was in high school. I later switched to Congas.
A pivotal time in my life was when I first heard Babatunde Olatunji and I saw him at Cooper Union in New York in Manhattan when I was 11 years old in 1959. That really blew my mind and bought me into the roots of African rhythm, and I have been there ever since. It really shaped my whole life to how I see music and how I hear music. The rhythmic content of it has the African influence and the African cultural statement that God speaks through his drums. I believe in that; it is a very powerful median.
Jazzreview: What motivate and drives you as a leader?
Babatunde Lea: I also consider myself as an activist and I feel that music is functional. And what I’m trying to do is bring to the table the type of musicians that I know carry the same spirits. So that I want to hook into that and play music for people that are going to open up their minds and change their minds. Hopefully help them see the circumstances they are involved in and have the energy to change things. To be able to fight racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.
Those things can’t be done unless you have a concerted will and you also have to understand yourself. You must be cognitive and that takes a great deal of energy, and music can supply that. When you’re playing, and playing with sincere musicians who take it serious, you have half the battle won. That’s what my point is, to change the world actually or at least change my world and my perspective to what’s going on. You see there are some things that can be done and can be accomplished if we just have the will.
Jazzreview: What is the educultural foundation?
Babatunde Lea: The Educultural Foundation, a non-profit organization, was founded in 1993 in collaboration with my wife, education professor, Dr. Virginia Lea. The Educultural programs promote effective critical thinking about social and cultural issues through the exploration of arts and culture. We both share the passion to be an agent of change; turning music and other arts into a source of inspiration for cross-cultural problem solving. The curriculum workshops are available to children from elementary school to college. I want to take some of the master musician into the schools. I did a thing with my percussion program here in Malao, at the elementary school. I brought McCoy Tyner and he played for an hour. I had just done a gig with McCoy and I asked him (all he could have said was no). I told him I’m starting this program here and if I could get you to come play for an hour, I’ll put together a rhythm section and play for the kids for an hour, and he said, "yes."
He was here at Yoshi’s and I went and picked him up and brought him to the school and he played. At the end of his playing he said, "My mother would be very proud of me right now." The kids loved it and they are still talking about it. As a matter of fact, the whole town is still talking about it.
Jazzreview: Were there certain inspirations for each song you selected?
Babatunde Lea: In all my compositions I am inspired by real events in history and /or heartfelt sentiments that I believe we as human beings should, at the very least, consider. Such as my composition "Soul Pools." It was written in the spirit that we prepare ourselves for the world that we live in.
Outley is about the Africans that were brought to these shores to be slaves. And they escaped and went into the Everglades with the Seminole Indians, never to be caught. Ejercito Moreno, means ‘Dark Army’ and it is about the fight for independence in Mexico that was also fought by an army of African soldiers, led by General Guerrero who was black. Confrontations is about how some confrontations are good and necessary and that it would behoove us to have courage as we engage in our daily life struggles. Whoa Baba is a tribute to Babatunde Olatunji, who I saw wearing out the groove of ‘Drums of Passion’ in New York City. The experience changed my life.
Jazzreview: What would you tell newcomers aspiring to become a musician?
Babatunde Lea: The main thing I would say is I wouldn’t do it unless I really loved it; this is a very hard business to get into. You have to have a specific calling and a definite love for the music. And try to grow and try to build your artistry. If you have that and you are working, practicing and listening, keep trying to grow on every level. You have to love it! Talent is only part it. You have to practice, starting at 4 hours and continue to add on the hours. That’s what I tell my students. Begin to develop your art, develop your gift to become an artist.
Jazzreview: Where will you take your career next?
Babatunde Lea: What my dreams, wishes and plans are is to continually play and record at least once or twice a year, and travel the world and play. Keep the Educultural Foundation happening going into the institution of education, sowing the seeds of change and being an agent of change through my music.
Babatunde Lea is a very exciting percussionist, and an excellent composer; Soul Pools is an explosion of music and energy.
The following is an itinerary for Babatunde Lea’s Quintet.
8th thru13 th - Tel Aviv, Israel w/Hilton Ruiz Trio
14th thru 20th Athens, Greece w/Hilton Ruiz Trio
2nd thru 6th - Paris, France at Le Duc Des Lombardesw/Babatunde Lea Quintet
7th and 8th - Woody Woodhouse live recording, jazz at Pearl’s in SF, CA
21st - Jazz School in Berkeley w/Raz Kennedy
11th - SFJazz-Daughter’s of Yam at Yerba Buena in SF
25th - Seattke WA, Babatunde Lea Quintet at Ben Aroya Hall
26th - Cal State Univ.-Monterey Bay, The Heritage Festival, w/ Babatunde Lea Quintet
27th - Half Moon Bay, Ca, Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, Babatunde Lea Quintet
28th - Santa Cruz, Ca, Kuumbwa Jazz center, Babatunde Lea Quintet
29th thru May 4th- Los Angeles, Ca, The Jazz bakery, Babatunde Lea Quintet
15th & 16th New York City, The Jazz Standard, Babatunde Lea Quintet
The Babatunde Lea Quintet
Babatunde Lea-drums & percussion
Ernie Watts-tenor Sax