He grew up playing in drumlines, a family tradition. While exploring his cultural past, he picked up African instruments.
His musical education continued when he moved to the West Coast in the 1960s. He performed with Oscar Brown Jr., Leon Thomas, Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Van Morrison and several others.
When Thomas died in 1999, Lea wanted to record a tribute. His recent two-disc release "Umbo Weti: A Tribute to Leon Thomas" fulfilled that wish.
Now, Lea, who is now in his 60s, lives in Central Pennsylvania and is hoping to educate and empower America's youth with jazz.
Where are you calling from? San Francisco. I played in Los Angeles last week at Catalina's Jazz Club. (I'm) up here to play Yoshi's (Jazz Club). I've been playing with other artists and my own band over the years. Next week, I start a program called Operation Jazz Band at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. It focuses on the entire fifth-grade population of Healdsburg, (Calif.) It's a five-day program that (teaches) drums, piano, bass, horns and vocals. On the fifth day, there is a concert. We've taught (the students) how to scat and some African chants. After the concert, they're walking on the moon. It's audience-building for jazz in the future.
How did you get into music? My family all played drums on the drumlines in Danville, Va. One of the first women to do that was my aunt. I was raised in New Jersey. I tell people I knew how to mambo before I could walk, I had nine aunts and they taught me all the dances of the day. My uncle is the one who really turned me onto music. I was always playing his records. Last week, my aunt and uncle and cousins came to the gig at Catalina's. Living in the New York metro area (later), I was turned onto a lot of different genres (including) Afro-Cuban music.
What were some of the records you listened to? Cannonball Adley, Nancy Wilson, Bobby Timmons . . . Gene Ammons, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and a host of others. I got exposed to a lot of the major jazz masters
When did you start playing drums? I picked it up when I was 11 in 1959. I always saw my family playing drums in parades and school functions. Nobody pushed me (to play drums). One day, I was walking home from school and everybody was practicing . . . for a parade. I stood by the parking lot of the church. They kept trying to get a rhythm. I walked around the fence, and I asked, "Could I show you?" That was the first time I played, (and) they asked me to join the group.
Did you ever take drum lessons? A lot of the stuff was inside of me from hearing it. (I got) on-the-job training playing with the master drummers and seeking out not-so-formal lessons. I did study in California with Chuck Brown. He taught Tony Williams, who used to play with Miles Davis. I studied (with Brown) for a year or two. I'm a percussionist and drummer sometimes. My 50th year of playing drums (was 2009). For the last 20 years, I've been doing taponga - using trap drums (a drum kit) and congas at the same time. That's kind of my niche.
Do you teach? I live in Gettysburg. My wife is a professor of education. We were in California and relocated a year and a half ago. I teach at Gettysburg College as an adjunct instructor. They just gave me an accredited class. I do residencies at the elementary schools. So far, I've been in three schools in Adams County.
Was it a big transition to come to Central Pennsylvania after living on the West Coast? It's total culture shock. I'm finally carving out a niche. I'm getting a lot of organizations (and) schools . . . seeking me out. Part of my role at (Gettysburg College) is to be a facilitator of the race organization in the Center for Public Service. Students of Gettysburg College come to talk . . . about experiences and deal with bettering race relations. I'm a facilitator for the Leadership Institute, which involves (fraternities and sororities) on campus.
Do you combine your social messages with your music? (My wife and I) have a nonprofit organization, the Educultural Foundation. It runs programs dealing with education, diversity and race relations. We're trying to (use) the performing arts and jazz to be agents of change in dealing with social issues of the day.
Are those issues the subjects of your compositions? I mainly (record) jazz music for my record company and on . . . other artists' CDs. I've studied African music on the African Diaspora. (It's) had a huge impact on the cultural arts of North America. I wanted to understand my connection with Africa and music to bring all those influences (to my) jazz music. My compositions are about . . . pertinent things we need to think about and know about. Music is very powerful. They use music to sell. I want (listeners) to take the energy to fight the -isms - racism, sexism (and) homophobia.
You are going to perform at the Governor's Awards for the Arts reception at the Valencia Ballroom in York. How did that opportunity come about? I'm involved with (the local arts in education program) stART Something. Gayle Cluck (arts in education director at the Cultural Alliance of York County) is the head of that and we had been working together. She came to see my showcase . . . in Pittsburgh and asked me to play the awards reception. I don't usually do things like that . . . since my band is not like background music. I'm new to the area and thought it would be good . . . to meet other performing artists in the area. It's an honor.
- ERIN McCRACKEN, FLIPSIDE STAFF
On the Web
Read more about Babatunde Lea atwww.myspace.com/babatundelea.
For details about the Educultural Foundation, visit www.educulturalfoundation.org.
For details about stART Something, visit www.startsomething-aie.org.