Babatunde Lea will not forget 2003. Shortly after releasing Soul Pools
, his fourth recording as a leader, his inspirer 'Babatunde Olatunji' passed away. Lea's beat, conversely, is livelier than ever and honoring in high spirits the induction of Olatunji into jazz's pantheon of collective memoirs.
Conceptually speaking, Lea's latest recording is akin to the curing properties experienced in his prescient and life-changing initial encounter with Olatunji almost half a century ago. It seems to nourish both his desire for, as well as his particular views on healthier means of relating to self and others. When asked to connect the dots between such an aim and the compositions and the performances themselves, Lea said: 'After many years studying the rhythms of the African Diaspora, I have peeped that through many of the African cultures lies the understanding that there is no separation between mind, body and spirit. In fact, that is when health ensues. I contend that polyrhythms are a metaphor for universal culture. Polyrhythms are connected. So are we as human beings. We just don't fully realize it because it needs to be taught, just like one needs to be taught rhythms by a master drummer. I strive to make my compositions functional, which is an African take on the arts. The purpose I try to imbue my music with is that our growth as human beings should strive toward an anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, egalitarian, democratic universal society and I don't care how many life times it takes to get there! I consider myself an activist as well as a musician and consider myself an 'agent of change.' My wife 'Dr. Virginia Lea' and I have a non-profit organization called the Educultural Foundation. Our purpose statement is that we teach critical thinking about social and cultural issues through the Arts. We have programs and curricula ready to go into any institution of learning and present them. You can get more information on the Educultural Foundation by logging on to www.motema.com .'
Soul Pools comes with a second CD recorded Live at Rasselas, with Ernie Watts as guest. Commenting on this 20+ minute strong and tight performance, the percussionist says that he met Watts at the '02 Playboy Jazz Festival, 'where we were both members of Bill Cosby's All Star Band, Cos of Good Music. As a big fan of Ernie's, when I got a couple of gigs in L.A. and San Francisco I asked if he would join in. He couldn't make the L.A. gig but he could make the San Francisco date, the one at Rassela's on Fillmore. I can very easily say that that gig was one of my most rewarding performances ever and we got it on tape. Imagine that! Hilton has been on my last three recordings and we have become quite good friends. He hires me now for gigs with his trio. Earlier this year, we did a few gigs in Europe with it. Geoff Brennan is an old friend of mine from his days in San Francisco. He has since relocated to New York. I picked him because he is one of those rare bass players that know the language of the Afro Caribbean rhythms and straight-ahead Jazz. I am very blessed with my current touring band, The Babatunde Lea Quartet with Ernie Watts on tenor sax, Hilton Ruiz in piano, Geoff Brennan plays the bass and me on drums and percussion. When we play it is more an experience than a musical outing. I am high, from the music, for days after every gig.'
In a release described by the leader as 'somewhat of a milestone,' Lea recounts, 'it had a very rocky beginning, with some personnel changes and new friends made. It made my vision a lot clearer and my path more committed, nonetheless. Each of these musicians gave strength and inspiration to me. As I continue to grow, I try to realize and understand the gifts of each of these master musicians as time goes on. What I do understand is that each possesses profound understanding of rhythm, harmony, communication and the absolute necessity of the spirit being in the music.' In that regard, it isn't that surprising that Lea begins his description of the production contributions of Frank Lacy, as well as his playing, by making reference to a mystical group: 'Frank Lacy in my mind is like a whirling dervish. If they can ever create perpetual motion, it might look something like him. Frank brought enthusiasm, harmonic depth and interesting ideas for arrangements to the mix. He was like a spark plug that kept us all up and focused. His compositions added greatly to the overall presentation. In all of Frank's performances on the CD, you can hear the spirituality, commitment and virtuosity of his playing.'
In the tune 'Round the World,' singer and impresario Jana Herzen lays it down and the Bluesy collective groove of the group shines through. Commenting on this particular tune, the singing and the recording experience itself, the drummer states 'before we started on this journey that is Motema, Jana had hired me as a drummer for her band. First, I got to know Jana musically. I respected her music so much that I asked her if I could produce her next recording. Long story short, that question brought us to here. 'Round the World' is an added spice that makes the entire presentation taste good!
At times, it is quite instructive to ascertain the hopes of a musical group leader's for their music. Under the most auspicious circumstances, what would Lea want his audience to take-in after listening to Soul Pools ? In the final analysis, what is Babatunde Lea really saying in it? Speaking of the former query, he responds beseeching 'please take-in our attempt at communication, musically or otherwise. Understand that if we don't attempt to communicate we never will. Some communications are better than others, Soul Pools is one of my better attempts. It is leading to even greater personal understanding on how to communicate. As I like to say, take the energy from this music and use it to go out and change the world and fight the 'isms' that sorely need to be addressed!' While on the latter inquiry he simply declares that 'the art of music is a pool where we can immerse ourselves in and come up refreshed, committed, and ready to act globally on behalf of human beings to make this a better world for us and our children.'
Lea is adept at various percussive styles and I was curious as to who were some of his favorite drummers and percussionists and why. He was kind enough to indulge the question and relay that his favorites would 'take up the space of two columns, the African/Afro-Cuban percussionists and the African American Jazz innovators. I don't have any memories 'early or otherwise' that don't include Afro Caribbean music and loving it. It was, however, Babatunde Olatunji's recording Drums of Passion, as well as a subsequent concert that I attended at Cooper Union on 8th St in New York 'in 1959' that rocked my entire world. I was eleven years old at the time. The group's performance placed my heart and soul squarely in West Africa. It then made perfect sense that my ancestors came from Africa and the mark of that reality on my being is indelible! Since then, I have grown to love and appreciate many genres of percussive expression. On the first column, however, Armando Peraza, Mongo Santamar'a, Tata G'ines, Los Mu'equitos de Matanzas, Los Papines, Tommy L'pez, Sr., Ray Barretto are but a few of the congueros I have listened and learned from. The styles of the aforementioned conga giants were each distinctive and rooted to the center of the earth. On the second column, I love Philly Joe Jones. Someone once said, 'of every three beats a drummer knows, two of them came from Papa Joe Jones.' I also like Roy Haynes, Billy Hart, Eddie More, Roy Brooks and many others too numerous to name, although I must admit that my all time personal favorite is Elvin Jones. The reason being, his polyrhythms and emotional impact! If you really listened, Elvin and Trane were better than LSD for changing one's mind and giving an understanding of transcendence through music.'
Lea describes his relationship with Latin music saying that he learned how to mambo before he could walk. 'My family was unique because they were one of few African American families 'back in the 50's' that were truly into Afro Caribbean music. Dick Ricardo Sugar was on the radio a great deal in my house. Tito Rodr'guez, Tito Puente, Machito, Johnny Pacheco, Joe Cuba, Eddie and Charlie Palmieri, Mongo Santamar'a and Cal Tjader were all household names in my family, just to name a few. I grew up loving the music and, as anyone can hear, it has been a great influence.'
Further into Latin musical matters, I asked Lea to comment on the benefits and pitfalls of the seeming dominant tendency among many, if not most, of the leading contemporary Latin percussionists to implement trap drum techniques into their hand drumming. His response was that 'any musician faces the same pitfalls when working on their technique. Too much adherence to just technique makes for a sterile presentation. There should always be a balance. For me the advent of Changuito's technique and la mano secreta (the secret hand) was very inspiring and exciting. It changed my whole technique and I value the rudimentary aspect of conga drumming. However, I would say that making each technique your own will help make your drumming a spiritual experience for yourself, let alone an audience.'
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.'
' 2003 Jean-Marc Lubrano