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Intent to Drum

In the Name of the Drum: Babatunde honored influential percussionist Babatunde Olatunji by adopting his name.

The percussive cycle links two Babatundes

By Nicky Baxter

When a friend asked if I would be interested in master percussionist Babatunde's new album, I was appropriately enthusiastic. This was, after all, the musician and spiritual mentor whose unit Drums of Passion had a profound effect on jazz in the early 1960s and beyond.

When the disc arrived, I was astonished. This was not the same guy. Same name, different person. Babatunde Olatunji is the Nigerian-born elder statesman of African-centered percussion in jazz; the album was the work of his U.S.-born African namesake and percussion heir apparent, who simply goes by Babatunde.

As it turns out, Babatunde #2 has never met Olatunji #1 and is eager to make his acquaintance. And it just so happens that the latter is giving a workshop in Mountain View right around the time of my scheduled interview with the former. Hence the Plan: Babatunde the younger would drive in from his Vallejo digs to meet Olatunji and talk shop with Metro.

We rendezvous in downtown San Jose, then set out to Mountain View. Despite his billowy, blue-print African garb and a head of micro-braids, Babatunde is an unassuming figure. Before the evening was over, it would become evident that despite his placid exterior, the Virginia native possesses a rare intelligence. During the drive, I ask him how his fascination with the drum originated. "As a kid, I vividly remember when Drums of Passion came [to town]," Babatunde begins.

By that time, he and his family were living in Englewood, N.J. "It was one of the most pivotal moments in my life as far as my heritage," Babatunde continues. "I was so moved by the performance that I was placed squarely on the path to pursue my link with the drums." It was this experience that would latter prompt him to adopt the Nigerian percussionist's first name as his own.

We find the community center hosting Olatunji's drum class. Besides the workshop leader and his assistant, Babatunde and I are the only Africans in the room; it is an oddly surreal experience shared by us both. After a brief exchange between the two percussionists, Babatunde #2 and I make our way back to San Jose.

"My family had a fondness for Afri-Cuban music--Machito, Chano Pozo, Mario Bauza and people like that," he recalls over a cup of espresso. "I got a copy of Olatunji's Drums of Passion and wore the grooves out." Drum music wasn't all that bent Babatunde's young ears. "My family had eclectic tastes, so I was listening to the R&B of the day [the early 1950s]--the Cadillacs, Flamingos, Platters." Gospel, too, was an essential part of Babatunde's musical regimen, and he was also introduced to European classical music.

Significantly, Babatunde takes issue with the notion of "classical" music and launches a lengthy, well-reasoned polemic on the term, especially as it relates to African-based music. He has a problem with people who, in an attempt to "legitimize" black improvisational music, have labeled it America's "classical" music. That expression, he argues, implies "hierarchy and elitism."

European classical music, he points out, was not made for general consumption but was subsidized by the ruling aristocracy, exclusively for the enjoyment of that class. This fact is in direct conflict with African forms, which, he says, are communal--made by and for the entire community--and functional, inseparable from daily activities, secular and spiritual.

"History justifies this [theory]," he argues. "When you think of the great European composers, they were supported by the monarchy and then the government."

In the United States, by contrast, black music in general and jazz specifically were "forced into a European paradigm. [U.S.-born Africans] used European modes, but it was determinedly African in substance," he continues.

Misconceptions about the role and function of African Diasporan music and culture have persuaded the 48-year-old artist to put his time and energy where his mouth is. Six years ago, he and his wife, Virginia Lea, a teacher for more than two decades, began going into Bay Area schools to talk to students and teachers about the music, of course, but also about the wider world to which it is inextricably linked. The project, dubbed the Educultural Foundation, was formalized three years ago.

"My wife and I teach critical thinking about social and cultural issues," Babatunde explains, "and make connections between music, economics and politics. Because our kids are not told how to think. Except for the gifted, the rest of us are being tracked into designated areas. We teach the teachers that they bring baggage into the classroom, and that baggage encourages them to miseducate children of color."

This issue is of pivotal importance for Babatunde and Lea. His claim that by the year 2000, two-thirds of the U.S. student population will be nonwhite, while 95 percent of the teachers will not be, may sound exaggerated, but recent studies do indicate a gaping racial disparity between teachers and students that shows no sign of improving in the near future.

Babatunde's own formal musical and cultural development began when he was about 10, in Englewood, N.J., when he joined his elementary school's marching band, playing drums. Three years later, it was on to congas; eventually he expanded to encompass a veritable panoply of percussion instruments, including the bata, chekere and timbales, as well as the more standard jazz trap drums. Around 1963, Babatunde found himself in a recording studio with a Temptations-styled vocal group. From there it was all study, practice, perform.

In the 1970s, Babatunde became an ubiquitous figure on New York City's music scene. Over the years, he has recorded and performed with a laundry list of artists ranging from hard-bop heroes Freddie Hubbard and Sonny Fortune to former John Coltrane associates McCoy Tyner and Pharoah Sanders to postbop revivalists Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland. He has also dabbled in film, television and video. In theater, he has collaborated with noted choreographer Bill T. Jones and composer/musician Leroy Jenkins. His seminars, clinics and lectures have won him a growing grassroots audience.

Surprisingly, his most recent album, Level of Intent (released on his own Diaspora Records), marks just the second time Babatunde has ventured into the studio as a leader. Unsurprisingly, the date emphasizes Babatunde's eclectic background. While the session reveals the artist's enduring love affair with bebop (the opening salvo is Charlie Parker's "Billie's Bounce"), Thelonious Monk's "Ask Me Now" is reconfigured as an "Afri-Latinized" workout showcasing Babatunde on trap drums and a variety of percussive effects.

Featured as well are session producer and reedman John Purcell on flute; Frank Lacey on trombone; Oakland native and former Dizzy Gillespie protégé Jon Faddis on trumpet; and Hilton Ruiz on piano. Other noted guest artists include the prodigiously gifted Charnette Moffet on bass and Kenny Baron, another Dizzy confederate, on piano.

"Father of Dreams," like "Ask Me Now," also aims for a African/Latin American flavor. Here, again, the horn arrangement is the featured attraction, with particularly expert trombone work by Lacey. Babatunde doesn't play beneath or above what's going on; rather, he is an equal partner in the musical dialogue being conducted. The title track, a Babatunde composition, is a slice of straight-ahead jazz, underscored by Purcell's lushly romantic saxophone.

Sunday's Garden City gig with Zum Bruthaz will be the musician's last major performance here before he departs for Europe with saxophonist John Tchicai, an early exemplar of the New Black Music scene, who recorded with John Coltrane. In a sense, the circle remains unbroken; just as the elder Babatunde helped open John Coltrane's head to his African roots (Africa Brass, for instance), his younger namesake's association with another Coltrane mate extends that magnificent tradition.

Babatunde performs Sunday (March 24) at 8:30 and 10pm at Garden City, two sets at Garden City, 360 Saratoga Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $5. (408/244-7251)

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From the Mar. 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro

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