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Spotlights [Issue # 14 ]
Babatunde Lea: Suite Unseen: Summoner Of The Ghost

By Jason Sklar

Babatunde Lea’s latest African-inspired jazz journey encompasses more than technical polyrhythms and pentatonics.

Babatunde Lea’s latest African-inspired jazz journey encompasses more than technical polyrhythms and pentatonics. Suite Unseen: Summoner of the Ghost tackles social rife, spiritual understanding, and cultural mores through global rhythms that spear their way to audiences’ inner cores.

For Babatunde Lea, there is no separation between mind, body, and spirit. Lea notes how music and art frequently take on functional roles. They complement the ceremonious at funerals and births, celebrate the sacramental with fertility rites, and mark the feudal during harvest.

Through music, Lea materializes what he calls the spirit - the feeling one gets when a collective body of humans comes together in some endeavor. Babatunde Lea has experienced this through gospel music, playing in drum lines, and participating in conga sessions. “The feeling of the spirit is a phenomenon that we are all capable of hooking up to,” says Lea.

While Lea’s life is deeply rooted in religion, he maintains that the spirit is nondenominational. “When you couch it [the spirit] in religion, it seems to separate not connect – the spirit is one.” For Lea, Summoner of the Ghost is a euphemism for feeling and spirit; his polyrhythms a metaphor for culture. He harnesses the spirit to unite all colors and creeds in musical unity. “Once you know you are connected, anything outside of yourself affects you,” he says. Lea calls for a separation between church and state of musical mind, which he achieves by tying traditional swing and Latin feels to African rhythms.

Lea quashes stereotypes and xenophobia by producing sounds that force you to go beyond personal differences and sit together in a common culture comprised of unique sub-cultures. As an African-American, Lea sets his sights on healing social wounds as he sees America and the world still in a process of what he refers to as debriefing from slavery. “There’s really only one race - the human race,” he says. “After music opens you up, certain things need to be put in to understand the inclusiveness and complex connections of life.”

Lea delivers a spoonful of spirit that fends off the less authentic and engages listeners in heartfelt collective playing. “You are what you digest,” he says. “And all too often we consume video games, American Idol, and Days of Our Lives.” Lea’s trombonist Steve Turre’s whirring lines certainly require more chewing than the widely popular, more easily digested Kelly Clarkson.

“I strive to play my life and be able to change the texture and timbre of the music through what I do,” explains Lea. “ I put a canvas in front of my musicians to include their own lives, too. This allows the mingling of spirits so that the colors run together.”

His musical philosophy has taken cues from Nigerian master drummer Babatunde Olatunji, who made his biggest impression on Lea with his recording, Drums of Passion. “He took the spirit of music and filled me up. It was transcendental.” In addition to Olatunji, Lea’s influences include: Nina Simone, Oscar Brown, Jr., Nancy Wilson, Julian “Cannonball” Adderly, and Pharaoh Sanders. In his own music, Lea marries jazz and African influences to drive the percussive jeep on his jazz safari.

Even though Lea’s interests reside in the spiritual more than the empirical, he joins complex sounds into a well brewed mixture of conch shells, trombone, saxophone, piano, kalimba, acoustic bass, and an array of percussive instruments including the tama drum, and bala fon.

“My music and my life are synonymous and intertwined,” says Lea. “As I grow older, I try to be more articulate. Suite Unseen comes a step closer to that.” At 57 years old, “I’m still climbing my ladder,” he says.

Suite Unseen: Summoner of the Ghost

Suite Unseen: Summoner Of The Ghost Babatunde Lea Suite Unseen: Summoner of the Ghost

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