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Babatunde Lea's Soul Pools

By Published: October 6, 2003
Is there, then, a 'Giovannization' of conga playing? I wonder and asked Lea, referring to the primacy of Giovanni Hidalgo in his main instrument, the conga drum. In other words, has his playing ethos become explicitly dominant among Latin Jazz percussionists? In response, Lea states: 'Giovanni is the biggest sweetheart I know. I met him when he was seven years old and his uncle brought him to a rehearsal in San Francisco that I was at. When Giovanni sees me now, he greets me like a long lost uncle saying how much he has learned from me. The truth of the matter is that when he sat in at that rehearsal, he was seven and I was in my 20's. He was already playing technically better than me. Giovanni is the Charlie Parker of the conga. What he can do with a conga drum is amazing and you are always going to have drummers trying to add some of that magic to their own playing, just like you have 'and had' so many people trying to sound like Bird and Trane. That kind of imitation always has its downside. You get congueros trying to play like Giovanni totally missing the fact that he is coming from very deep spiritual roots. Some musicians just see the technique and don't realize the fertile soil that Giovanni has grown from. I think that the bottom line is that he has raised the bar and musicians will try to reach it anyway, to both good and bad effects.'

Lea's music could very well be described as Latin jazz 'while acknowledging the obvious limitations all identifying labels suffer from' and he seems to prefer Hispanic players, would he offer any comments in that regard? Indeed he does, as he says, 'I don't know if it can be said that I 'prefer Hispanic players.' I think that it has just worked out this way because of my love for Afro Caribbean music. Mario Rivera and John Ben'tez wound up on my recording because of Suzi Reynolds and Frank Lacy. It was my first time meeting them. I was thrilled when I found out they were going to record with me. Originally, Craig Handy and Alex Blake were scheduled to make the gig but due to unforeseen circumstances, it never became a reality. Hooking up with John Ben'tez was like finding my long lost rhythmical brother. His influences are Latin jazz and my influences are jazz Latin. Same with Hilton, he always says to me 'Babatunde, I was taught by the Black Masters.' Hilton's Latin Jazz and Salsa roots reads like a Who's Who of Latin music. He is a one of a kind musician because of the two worlds he has straddled. I believe that Hilton and I meet in the middle of the Afro-Caribbean-Jazz, Jazz-Afro-Caribbean continuum. Because of our collective experiences we are creating now an innovative style of music for which I believe we are destined.'

Finally, Lea concludes by sharing his comments on how he keeps himself fit for musical duty. What kind of particular practice regimen and listening discipline does he adhere to, if any? 'I practice constantly, because I feel as a late bloomer always playing catch up. I have been playing congas since I was 13 and started the traps when I was 20, back in 1968. I now play congas and trap drums at the same time so I am practicing those two all the time. I have a very eclectic taste in music. I listen to 'and purchase' whatever catches my ear. I try to eat right, walk a lot and spend time with my wife Dr. Virginia Lea. I also invest time with my three daughters Lichelli, Tanya and Mayana. Family keeps me centered, rooted, grounded and relatively sane. I am a truly blessed man.'

Photo Credit
' 2003 Jean-Marc Lubrano

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