March 31, 2007
at Listen & Be Heard Poetry Café.
He will be accompanied by Glen Pearson on piano and a musician to be announced on upright bass.
818 Marin Street.
Babatunde Lea on Education and Appreciation of Jazz and the Arts in Vallejo By martha mims
World renowned jazz percussionist Babatunde Lea, and his wife Dr. Virginia Lea, have been living in Vallejo since 1991. In spite of their mutually busy schedules, she as Associate Professor of Education at Sonoma State University and he as a touring and recording Jazz artist, they are co-founders of the Educultural Foundation, based right here in Vallejo. They have given much thought and many hours of labor toward teaching critical thinking about social and cultural issues through the music and visual and performing arts. There's a good reason why artists who have devoted their lives to their art would/should have an interest in arts education, since it is directly related to their continued ability to make a living practicing their craft. Anyone hearing Babatunde Lea play for the first time can't escape the powerful effect that the polyrhythms have on their body and mind. You might want to dance, or shout out in exultation. But a full appreciation for the level of artistry displayed at a Babatunde Lea concert is dependent partly on a person's understanding of musical traditions. People such as the Leas have demonstrated their dedication to that cause. What is needed now is recognition from the people of the community and the City of Vallejo, of the value of their goal. Unfortunately they appear to be lacking that support in a big way. We as a community are losers when we can't or won't embrace and uphold efforts already being made with sweat equity, to enrich and expand cultural awareness. If, after years of neglect, we continue to throw up our hands instead of getting them dirty, then we will surely lose our greatest assets, the minds and hearts of dedicated people who will be forced to move on to a place where they will be supported in their efforts to contribute something of value.
I spoke to Babatunde on the phone on Monday morning October 16, partly to ask him what the state of the arts in Vallejo looked like from his angle. I've been expressing some of my views on that subject in my weekly web editorials, (listenandbeheard.net/archives/ category/letter-from-the-editor/) In an effort to present a balanced point of view, I asked him, and will be asking others to express their views on what can and needs to be done.
Babatunde was having his morning tea, and sounded rather at peace with the world until I asked him what was up here in his hometown. His frustration was evident. Since 1991 he has self-produced about ten concerts at the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum. None of the arts organizations stepped in to help publicize, promote or fund those concerts. Not many people showed up. Not one made money. It's so backwards" he said. The potential is there. I keep trying to be positive, but things are not coming together. The fine arts people are separated from music and theatre. We're all separated. In New York so many different people are collaborating on so many different levels. We have that same opportunity here in California in general, but we don't take advantage of it. It's my experience that, in a capitalistic world, promoting the arts, here in the Bay Area, doesn't even reach the level of doing good business. When you add a bad business sense to apathy, it becomes deadly."
On a national level record sales for America's indiginous art form, Jazz, are minimal in comparison to other categories. In Vallejo it is a case of compounded ignorance" according to Babatunde. The most complex issue is that people don't value the arts because of ignorance and lack of exposure and education. We need to educate and expose the community to Jazz, in particular, and the arts in general. Jazz needs to be given to Vallejo, on a level, because in order for the arts to survive we have to teach the community to value it! One way of educating and exposing people to the arts is making it available to them for very little or no money. That means that somebody has to subsidize and/or underwrite this education." Now in his sixth year teaching music to the youngsters at the Admiral Farragut/Mare Island Elementary School, he is seriously considering giving it up entirely. Some individuals have been very generous, but it remains a total struggle. I've never been able to implement the program that I dream of having in place at Mare Island. I'm going to have to cut back because I can't do it. The Vallejo City Unified School District cries broke. Nobody has any money. I love the kids. I don't want to stop. My wife has counciled me to reassess what I'm doing. I'm paying to do this. I've paid too much. Not enough people value what I do. I'm valued at many places all over the world. Then to be right here...people are tripping. They don't even know that what I do is valuable or, at the very least, helpful."
I asked him what can Vallejo do?" He replied that there are things already set in place" (such as the Educultural Foundation.) You don't have to reinvent the wheel. Listen & Be Heard needs to also be, really, supported."
His attempt to form a group called the V-Town 100, a group of 100 people to contribute $1000 each toward presenting jazz concerts in Vallejo also ran into difficulty. He was trying to give Vallejo a shot in the arm by taking contributed money and spending it to bring in top names." He wanted to give this to Vallejo for education and appreciation." According to Lea some of the other committee members were a bit more conservative. Some of the potential participants wanted the focus to be more on local musicians, and it is my contention that some local musicians, have helped to perpetuate the dilemma that we are in now. I had Bobby Watson ready to come but we didn't raise the money to bring him here. People seem to not be thinking about the future and what could happen. I was accused of not looking after other peoples' money and moving too fast. I felt it was not about the money but the experience of bringing master Jazz musicians to Vallejo/Solano County. The children of Admiral Farragut/Mare Island Elementary School will never forget that McCoy Tyner and Regina Carter came to play for them...that's priceless! Over all, it is my contention that not only Vallejo but this entire country needs to supply artists with what they need and what we need as a people in as many mediums of artistic expression as possible. Events like the Vallejo Jazz Festival should be underwritten and given to the people, My programs should be underwritten so that I can educate children and prepare new audiences for the arts in general. We need to start to look at our tax dollars and how they are really being spent and expect more from the corporations that operate in our communities. We need more money to be spent on education in general!"
Well educate me. Please. Having the opportunity to speak personally with the master on the telephone I asked him to talk about this music he plays that we call Jazz. In descriptions of his music by scholarly folks, music reviewers and the thousands of his friends" at myspace.com/babatundelea, there are many references to the African diaspora, and his studies of African rhythms. You'll find this in his Myspace profile I draw a lot from African culture and one of the main things I draw is that music is functional in the many different cultures in African life. Music accompanies everything. The music can put you in a space to help you learn, it opens you up and once you're open and energized, then you can start building things to make the world a better place. Music is like oil and water: it does the bidding of who controls it; it has the power to open you up but it doesnt direct where you're gonna go or what you're gonna do once you're open. We need a dialog to accompany the music so that power and energy is put to use in a positive way...like dismantling Racism, Sexism, Classism and any other isms that need eradication. The fact that we are connected in the same fashion as polyrhythms are connected needs to be known! We are (quiet as it's kept) interdependent on this planet and none of us escapes the cause and effect of ones actions!"
I asked him what it is that makes his music sound so different from the Jazz of the fifties and even the sixties. He said what has been convoluted is that even the music from the advent of Jazz is derived from an African base. It's an evolution of Africans in the New World. Swing, all the other rhythms that come from the African American experience, have their roots in African rhythms. The root of Jazz is African. My bent has always been African. My family dug Afro-Cuban music. Mambo, Cha-Cha-Cha, Merengue, Pachanga, Charanga. All of these sounds and rhythms were in New York all through the fifties, at many music and dance venues like the Apollo, and too many other places to mention. A life changing event for me was to go to a concert of Babatunde Olatunji's at Cooper Union in New York City."
I was 11 years old. I had the first Hi-Fi LP his Drums of Passion." Like Olatunji, his christian name was Michael. A couple of decades later, while a member of a band called JuJu, when many people were claiming African names for themselves, he renamed himself after the master drummer of all time Because they both shared the same Christian names, (Michael), it was a no brainer" to become Babatunde. I never had any qalms about adding African rhythms to my playing, I was just doing what I had already done, what my whole thing has been from the beginning. What you hear, that you say sounds different is my own voice. Pharoah Saunders, Leon Thomas, Oscar Jr. all had original voices and they counseled me to find my own voice also. A lot of people try to be like the masters. What I learned coming up was that you have to take what has gone before and make it your own. The way is to understand who you are and know what you have to offer. I played in drumlines from when I was 9 or 10 years old. I Mambo'd before I could walk. I grew up with an Afro-Caribbean element in my life. That's who I am. That's what I loved. Congas were my first axe, now I'm playing Traps and Congas at the same time, I call it a Traponga. There's also the Afro-Brazilian instruments, the Djembe, and the Bata drums, three hourglass drums ranging in size, religous drums from the Yoruba people. Candomble in Brazil, Santeria in Cuba and Voodoo from Haiti really all are the same religion spread out from Africa."
The drumbeats of Africa have spread across the entire civilized world, placing their indelible stamp on virtually every form of modern music. The polyrhythms played by a master who has devoted his life to the drum, do indeed have both a powerful and subtle effect on the whole person that is you or me or anyone living breathing working and loving today. Please take this conversation with the master and use it as you see fit. Come out and celebrate with us on the night of March 31, 2007 when Babatunde Lea on drums, Glen Pearson on piano and a bass player still to be announced.