Babatunde Lea: Summoning The Ghost Of Leon Thomas

Babatunde Lea is sitting under a tree in the backyard of his home in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania practicing his stick work. It’s a laid-back summer afternoon, but Lea is working hard, laying down an Afro Caribbean groove infectious enough to make the tree uproot itself and start dancing. “Just doing some control exercises,” he says, smiling. “Every time you turn the corner, there’s another young lion ripping it up, so I like to keep in shape.”

Lea recently moved to Pennsylvania with his wife, Virginia. They’ll both be teaching at Gettysburg College in the fall, but for the past 30 years, Lea was one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s premier drummer/percussionists. He first appeared on the scene in 1968 and his innovative traponga setup – a drum kit augmented by three congas and assorted percussion instruments – allows him to play two, sometimes three rhythms at the same time. His resume includes touring and studio work with Pharoah Sanders, Stan Getz, and Van Morrison, as well as the ensembles he created to play his own compositions. But he says it was the time he worked with the avant-garde jazz vocalist Leon Thomas that forged his identity as an artist and performer.

Lea’s latest release, Umbo Weti: A Tribute To Leon Thomas, is a two-disc CD/DVD that features longtime collaborator Ernie Watts on tenor sax, Gary Brown on upright bass, Patrice Rushen on piano, and singer Dwight Trible, whose style owes much to the work of Thomas. This live session, recorded at Yoshi’s Jazz Club in Oakland during two hectic days in 2008, may be the best album Lea’s ever cut. “After I decided to do this album live, we had a warm-up gig, then set up at Yoshi’s. We had 48 hours to hire a video crew to film the shows, do interviews, set up the microphones and recording equipment, and work out the sound. Howard Sapper, who produced the record, kept everything running smoothly and on schedule.”

Fortuitous Encounter

Leon Thomas may have been the most innovative jazz vocalist in the history of the music. He was a pioneer in the technique known today as vocalese. His scatting ability, marked by a falsetto that slipped over into a keening, yodeling tone, was unmatched. His work with Pharoah Sanders on the albums Karma and Jewels Of Thought amazed listeners and contributed two seminal tunes to the jazz songbook: “Hum Allah” and “The Creator Has A Master Plan.” His African-flavored free-jazz was years ahead of its time, and his music’s spiritual element was a major influence on the path Babatunde Lea followed.

“I met Leon when I was a child, just before I hit adolescence,” Lea recalls. “He moved to Englewood, New Jersey from East St. Louis and worked at the DuMont factory with a lot of my relations. He joined our church, the First Baptist Church Of Englewood, and sang in the choir. He made all the old sisters get happy with his magnificent voice. He’d turn the church out every Sunday. After I graduated high school, I went to California, but I followed his career and liked what he was doing with Pharoah and his own groups.

“In San Francisco I was in a band called Juju, playing a combination of folkloric music – Santeria and Yoruba chants and rhythms – and straight-ahead jazz. The bandleader moved the group to Richmond, Virginia in the early ’70s. At that time, Richmond was the funk capital of the world. We couldn’t get arrested. I went back to New Jersey and called Leon. He only knew me as a conga player and percussionist, but when I told him I played traps he asked me to try out for his new band. I went over to his studio in New York to audition on a Monday, and on Tuesday I was on a plane to San Francisco to do a week with him at Keystone Korner.

“Leon’s music was rooted in African folklore. He introduced me to the music of the Twa people, who most folks call pygmies. [Bill Summers made Twa music famous on his version of “Watermelon Man” by playing a Twa instrument, the hindihu whistle.] They call singing ’umbo weti’ and combine yodeling with singing. Leon adapted it to jazz, but the most important lesson he taught me was about the spirit of the music. He said it was important that music calls up the ghost. Technique is important, but you have to open yourself to the spirit to get where you want to go. The more musicians you have in a band that understand that, the easier it is to get to that place.”

Inside The Music

The music on Umbo Weti often goes to that sacred place where heart, soul, and spirit move in harmony. Singer Dwight Trible channels the spirit of Thomas while inhabiting his own creative space. On the title track, his vocals are almost possessed. He wails holy notes that are both anguished and sanctified. The audience breaks into spontaneous cries of pleasure. “Dwight has that effect on people,” Lea says. “They were going nuts. He sings with a fearless nature. He’ll go anywhere the feeling takes him – all the way out, and then he’ll bring you all the way back in. He’s electric. When he sings, you can smell ozone in the air.

“I’ve played with Ernie Watts for a long time; he was on my Soul Pool album, and I’ve admired Patrice Rushen from afar. I thought her playing would bring some chemistry to the project. Gary Brown I’ve known for 30 years. He’s well versed in Afro Cuban and Brazilian music, but he can play straight-ahead jazz too. We played the tunes pretty much the way Leon did them. The only thing different was the rhythms and patterns I was playing. I wanted to supply a canvas so the other artists could paint their heart’s desire and go for the spirit. That’s what I learned from Leon. He was always reaching to take it to the nth degree. On this album, the ghost is firmly and soundly called in both the compositions and the playing.”

Birth Of The Traponga

On two songs on Umbo Weti – the Ernie Watts composition “Reaching Up” and Lea’s own “African Tapestry” – Lea plays drum set, conga, and percussion at the same time. It’s hard to believe all that rhythm is coming from one man, even when you see him sitting behind his traponga setup on the DVD. “I evolved the traponga thing over the years,” Lea says modestly. “I was already playing conga professionally when the sound of the traps called out to me. I was in San Francisco at the time and started practicing every day, all day, to master [the traps]. After that, when I had my own band, I’d hire a percussionist who could play traps and conga so we could switch off. After I saw some Afro Cuban musicians playing both [drums] at the same time, I knew I could do it. I experimented with congas, playing them with my left hand and traps with my right. Then I added foot pedals on the cowbells and cymbals and made up patterns that would groove hard. I developed my intensity so I could smoke on the traponga and make it sound like more than one person without looking like a novelty act. I’m continuously working on it. That’s why I’m out in the backyard doing stick control now. It keeps you in shape. You have to keep working as you get on in years, but I can’t stop. That’s the beauty of music. It’s not about age, it’s about being here now.”

Drumming Family

Lea is one of the lucky ones. He grew up in a family surrounded by musicians and drummers. “I was born in Danville, Virginia, but my family moved to New York City during the great African-American migration north that happened in the early ’40s. Half the family settled in Harlem at 166th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, right near the Audubon Ballroom. The rest of us lived in a house we bought in Englewood, New Jersey. I grew up shuttling back and forth between New Jersey and New York.

“My family was full of drummers. My Aunt Gloria was the first woman in Virginia to play drums in a marching band, and everyone listened to music from R&B to jazz to doo-wop and lots of Afro Cuban stuff. I could mambo before I could walk and learned merengue, pachanga, and cha-cha dancing with my aunts and cousins. All the high schools around this time had drum lines, big groups of drummers with girls in costume doing baton routines. There was a friendly competition between the schools and when the drum line passed, you could feel the beat in your feet moving up your legs and into your stomach and heart. The girls at my high school were called The Twirlettes.

“My first drum experience came when I was walking home from school one day. I was watching The Twirlettes drummers play a rhythm, but they couldn’t nail it. I walked onto the field and told them I could show them how to do it. I’d never played before, but I’d been hearing it all my life from my relations. The minute I got the sticks in my hand, the rhythm came. That was my first gig.”

Lea joined the drum line and played throughout his school years, and was known for his innovative approach to rhythm, even in his teens. “In 1959, when I was 11, my cousin took me to see Babatunde Olatunji and his Drums Of Passion. It left an indelible impression and placed me on the path of being a drummer. Every pore in my body reacted to that music. I was so intent on hearing every note, I went to the edge of the stage and concentrated so hard, I had a headache by the end of the concert. I got the Drums Of Passion record and a set of congas. I listened to what Mongo was doing with Cal Tjader, Amando Peraza on George Shearing records, and of course, Ray Barretto, and played along with them. Barretto was a friend of my high school teacher and he visited our class, but he only brought his timbales. I ran home and got my congas. He played them and signed the heads.

“I also had a cousin with a magical collection of Afro Cuban LPs by Eddie Palmieri, Machito, Tito Rodriguez, and [Tito] Puente. I’d listen for hours on end and absorb everything I could. He had a friend who played timbales, one of the few brothers playing the music professionally in those days. He taught me how to play tumbao, the beat you hear on every mambo and cha-cha, so I had some Afro Cuban chops early on. In the drum line, I’d take the snare off my drum and play conga patterns with my sticks and really funk it up. I’d press on the head with my hand and give the drum an Afro Cuban tinge. There was a beat we’d play marching on and off the field. I’d add my thing to it and everybody would go crazy.”

Young Man Goes West

Lea kept playing after he got out of high school while holding down day jobs. “I didn’t have a plan. My family played for love, not professionally. I didn’t start thinking about being a pro until 1968, when I moved to San Francisco. I came out for the Summer Of Love and used to play on Hippie Hill with my congas. I’d run down the street with my drums, energized by the music, which you could hear from blocks away. I’d play all day when I wasn’t working for the Southern Pacific Railroad or Crocker Bank. I got fired from both jobs and finally asked myself what I was going to do with my life. I decided I was a drummer and committed myself to that.”

Lea taught himself drum set to augment his conga skills and played in a variety of situations: jazz, Latin jazz, and Afro Cuban. He joined Juju in 1970, and when the band moved back to the East Coast, he went with them. “After Juju fell apart I worked for Oscar Brown Jr., my first gig with a major artist. He was trying to make a new recording, which never happened, but I got to watch a master showman and see how he could control his audience. Then I hooked up with Leon Thomas and played with him for seven years. He always had two percussionist/drummers in his bands, so rhythmically we were wide open to anything that would fit the music.”

Lea moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1977 and hooked up with drummer and bandleader Bill Summers. “He was leading Bata Koto at the time,” Lea recalls. “It was a folkloric group playing the music of West Africa and the Caribbean. I learned a lot of Afro Cuban and Brazilian stuff with him. We’d go to schools to play the music for the kids and teach them about the history of the music. Bill was a friend and mentor. He had a degree in ethnomusicology from UC Berkeley and turned us on to a great deal of music from the African Diaspora.”

Solo Artist

Lea went on to play with Nigerian world-beat pioneer Joni Haastrup, South African jazz singer Letta Mbulu, and his own combos. He made his recording debut as a leader with 1979’s Levels Of Consciousness. “I’d been leading bands off and on the whole time, but better musicians than me have lived and died in obscurity,” Lea says philosophically. Featuring Julian Priester, Eddie Henderson, and Mark Isham, Consciousness was praised for its positive vibe and Lea’s blend of R&B, Afro Caribbean, and straight-ahead jazz. Those who heard it hailed his second album, Level Of Intent, as a creative milestone, but Lea put it out on his own label, mortgaging his home to finance it. The album was not widely distributed. Motéma reissued the seminal outing after Lea signed with them in 2003.

The Motéma deal unleashed a flurry of creativity that produced Soul Pools (2003), a free-jazz-meets-Latin set that was called a “masterpiece” by Downbeat, Jazziz, and Billboard. It’s a deeply spiritual album that delivered Lea’s compositions with undeniable power. “Every song I compose is a message that adheres to the philosophy of African music making, that music is the foundation of life, the glue that unites mind, body, and spirit. I want to be an agent of transcendence.”

Suite Unseen: Summoner Of The Ghost, Lea’s 2005 outing, touched on some of the lessons he learned from Leon Thomas and Olatunji with a polycultural blend of progressive music featuring Saturday Night Live trombonist and conch-shell master Steve Turre sitting in. That set laid the groundwork for Umbo Weti, Lea’s belated tribute to Thomas. “Umbo Weti took a long time to get together, but it worked so well we’re planning to do some dates to support its release. I was always curious about how Leon developed his style, but I never asked him about it. We were always working and he wanted us to dig deep into who we were and bring that forth on the bandstand. We didn’t talk about the music; it was just there.”

Lea’s Hybrid Kit

Drums Remo Gold Crown Fusion (Metalized Nickel-Silver Finish
1 20" x 16" Bass Drum
2 14" x 5.5" Snare Drum
3 10" x 7" Tom
4 12" x 8" Tom
5 14" x 14" Floor Tom

Cymbals Zildjian
A 14" K Hi-Hat
B 20" K Ride
C 14" A Custom Crash
D 17" A Medium Thin Crash
E 22" Paiste 2002 Ride
F 18" Sabian HH Thin Chinese

Percussion Remo Poncho Sanchez Congas With Tuff-E-Nuff Finish
G 11.75" x 30" Conga
H 12.5" x 30" Tumba
I LP Gajate Bracket
J LP Tribells
K Remo 4" Valencia Series Cha Cha Bell
L Remo 9" Valencia Series Mambo Bell
M Shekere

Babatunde Lea also uses Remo and DW hardware, Vic Firth sticks, and Remo heads. Lea endorses Bosphorus cymbals (not pictured).