Jazz drummer Babatunde Lea heads to Artists' Quarter, ready for joy on the bandstand

African drumming
Jazz percussionist Babatunde Lea will perform at The Artists' Quarter in St. Paul Friday and Saturday.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

When drummer Babatunde Lea performs Friday and Saturday at St. Paul's Artists' Quarter, he will feel as if he's at church, where songs of praise calm the soul.

More info: Babatunde Lea Quartet at The Artists' Quarter, St. Paul

The sounds that emerge from the stage will be heavily rooted in the rhythms of Africa and its diaspora, played by a band that, Lea said, is a rare treat for Twin Cities audiences. Joining him on bandstand will be bassist Anthony Cox, pianist Richard Johnson and trumpeter Solomon Parham.

Lea said he has wanted to play with the three musicians since seeing Cox and Parham in a show last year. The drummer has previously shared the stage with Johnson on the East Coast.

But Lea also welcomes the chance to play in a band of black artists.

"Since I've been here I haven't seen that," he said. "If there's one African-American in a band here, that's a momentous occasion. But to see more than one African-American in a band is rare, very rare."

For Lea, who grew up in New York and New Jersey and long lived in San Francisco, it will also be a welcome break from his daily life in Menomonie, Wis., where he now lives. His wife, Virginia, teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.

Though many people there are nice, he said, far too often he feels unsettled in his new home, keenly aware of his status as a black man in a largely white world. He hasn't had such experiences since he taught in Gettysburg, Pa., years ago.

"If I go into the market or I go into the restaurant or I go into the post office it's usually going to be only me," he said. "I don't think I've ever been aware so constantly, every day, of being African-American. That gets a little weary because you feel that people are not seeing you.

"Some of them are making you invisible and some of them are expressing or vibing dislike. With others, you just don't know. You just don't know how people are feeling, and that becomes a little disconcerting."

Although musicians in the Twin Cities area have warmly embraced him — a performance last year with bassist Chris Bates, guitarist Zacc Harris and Johnson was a highlight of the Artists' Quarter calendar — Lea wishes black musicians had a more visible role.

"I'm used to very diverse situations. I lived in San Francisco for many, many years and I've had all kinds of great people in my bands, [including] Chicanos, Mexicanos," he said. "I used to have a Japanese bass player. Coming to Wisconsin and the Twin Cities, I don't see the diversity of the music scene."

Lea's own circumstances will change some next spring when he moves to St. Paul, where audiences will have more chances to hear his expansive African musical vision.

It's an approach he has pursued since 1959. At 11, he first heard the drummer Babatunde Olatunji, a performance that inspired him to drop his given name of Michael.

"I've been a drummer all my life," said Lea, who plays the "traponga," a combination of trap drums and congas. "Everything that I do pretty much is rooted in Africa. That's the root. It goes up in the tree to other branches. But the roots will always remain Africa."

Besides Lea's arrangements of jazz standards, the musicians will play selections from his recordings, among them "Suite Unseen" and "Umbo Weti: A Tribune to Leon Thomas."

"It's a joy to get to the bandstand," Lea said. "It's kind of like with the old spiritual, I get to the bandstand and lay my burdens down. It just reiterates how important music, creativity and jazz is in my life."

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