Babatunde Lea’s vast experience of over 50 years as a master percussionist, along with the spiritual depth in everything he does, has made him one of the most esteemed musicians of the past half century. A New York native who was raised in Engelwood, NJ, Lea (given name Michael) came to music naturally. His aunt was one of the first women to play in a marching band. Shortly after starting on drums at 11, he saw Babatunde Olatunji and his Drums of Passion, and soon changed his own name to Babatunde.
Absorbing the rhythms of Africa and the Caribbean, Lea moved west to the Bay Area at 18, expanding his palette with affiliations with Bill Summers (Bata Koto) before joining Juju, leading to another relocation, this time to Richmond, VA. But perhaps the most influential connection was with Leon Thomas, who he had known from church back in New Jersey. “Leon sang in the choir. I used to see him sing every Sunday and he would ‘turn the church out!’” recalled Lea. Babatunde ended up working in Thomas’s band in the early 70s. “Leon was not only the bandleader and one of my bosses,” Lea explains, “but he was very instrumental to my artistic growth. He was a great influence on the type of music I like and the genre of music that I play.” Back in the Bay Area, he worked with Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Randy Weston, Van Morrison and, particularly, Oscar Brown, Jr., who was “like a father, he was an activist and I learned a lot just being around him,” recalls Lea.
Babatunde released his first album as leader, Levels of Consciousness in 1979, recording with a band called Phenomena, which grew out of the Loft Jazz Association. It was nearly two decades before his next release, Level of Intent, on his own label, Diaspora Records, which was reissued in 2003 when he co-founded Motema Records with Jana Herzen. Four albums later on Motema, Lea released a tribute to Leon Thomas, Ubmo Weti (2009). In 2010, he moved to Pennsylvania to teach at Gettysburg College, moving again a year later when he finally landed in the Midwest.
Babatunde Lea has long been committed to education, not just about music but also about social justice and spiritual connections. In 1993, with his wife Virginia, he founded the Educultural Foundation, a California non-profit organization that provides workshops, classes, and presentations. “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,’” says Babatunde. Lea has presented clinics and demonstrations of his approach to merging traditional African percussion with American jazz, yielding a drum kit he refers to as the Troponga. – Andrea Canter