In his hands: Babatunde Lea channels African drumming traditions

African drumming
Jazz percussionist Babatunde Lea was photographed Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, after an interview at Minnesota Public Radio.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Babatunde Lea likes to tell people that, as a child of an African-American family that loved Afro-Caribbean music, he knew how to dance the mambo and cha-cha-cha before he could walk.

"I grew up seeing all kinds of drums, going to parades, going to concerts," said Lea, who spent his youth in Englewood, N.J. "Going to the Apollo," he said, referring to the legendary theater in Harlem, "was at least a monthly occasion for me. I saw everybody."

Early on, that exposure to a multitude of sounds helped Lea to recognize the commonality of African rhythms in the music of the Americas, a shared heritage the percussionist has explored in a career that spans five decades.

Lea has pursued an African musical vision since 1959, when at 11 he first heard the drummer Babatunde Olatunji, a performance would inspire him to drop his given name of Michael.

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A few years later, he started to play congas and later, the trap drums, developing expertise that would launch a career in San Francisco and New York.

Now living close to the Twin Cities, Lea brings a spiritual jazz steeped in the African tradition to the local scene. He brings his eclectic style to shows on Friday and Saturday at St. Paul's Artists Quarter, where guitarist Zacc Harris, bassist Chris Bates and pianist Richard Johnson will join him on stage.

Though he has been hailed as a stellar performer of jazz and world music, Lea would say what's important isn't him, but the fountain from which his music springs.

"I call it jazz steeped in the rhythms of the African diaspora because I've learned a great many drumming traditions, you know, from Afro-Cuban to Afro-Brazilian to Senegalese to Nigerian," he said. "And I bring all those elements to my music, as well as straight ahead. It all depends on what composition and where your head is when you hear us."

But first, Lea who plays the traponga, may have to explain his instrumentation. He will play three congas with his left hand, a cajete or cowbell with a pedal with his left foot, and trap drums and cymbals with his right hand.

"I've developed a lot of patterns to fit my compositions. I've been developing it for a while now," Lea said. "And it's coming along really good. It's my niche ... and my innovation."

For more than four decades, he's worked with a slew of acclaimed artists, from percussionist Bill Summers and singer Leon Thomas to sax great Pharoah Sanders.

He has no doubt that the spirit of African ancestors drives the music of much of the Americas, from Afro-Cuban Santeria and Haitian voodoo to Brazilian candomble and even the music of the black church. The call to Africa that emerges from the drum, Lea said, is about one unifying spirit.

"These are all the same people that were brought over here during the slave trade," Lea said. "That's what people don't know. They separate African-Americans, Afro-Cubans, Afro-Brazilians and ... Haiti and Dominican Republic. It's like we're different people. No, we're the same people that was brought over here. We're just are separated by different languages.

"We're calling the ghost constantly. Our music is our music."

In concert, Lea will playing a variety from his recordings for Motema music, particularly from his last two works: "Suite Unseen" and "Umbo Weti: A Tribute to Leon Thomas." Besides Lea, "Umbo Weti" also features Dwight Tribbles on vocals, Ernie Watts on tenor saxophone, Patrice Rushen on piano and Gary Brown on bass. The percussionist hopes to bring the group to the Twin Cities.

For Lea, his exploration of the African spirit also is about reaching a higher level of consciousness or humanity, a goal he and his wife, Virginia, strive to foster in others through the Educultural Foundation they founded.

Also an activist, he teaches classes on how polyrhythmic drumming can help one understand different cultures -- and combat racism, sexism homophobia and classism.

"We have to understand that we as humankind are connected and that we have to deal with each other," said Lea, who wants people to focus on eliminating child suffering.

"We have to deal with each other humanely in that being that we are on this planet together all we can do is help each other. Everything else is false and a lie.

"We need to be connected," he said. "That's the lesson from the master drummer."


The Babatunde Lea Quartet performs Friday, October 5, and Saturday October 6 at 9 p.m.

The Artists' Quarter 408 St Peter Street St.Paul, MN 55102

(651) 292-1359