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The African diaspora beats in drummer Babatunde Lea

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By Bob Karlovits
Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Drummer Babatunde Lea sounds relieved when he is told his music has the "accessibility" of jazz amid its challenging percussion lines.

"That's good to hear," he says, "because that's really where I am from. The years working in New York have me in a hard-bop, post-bop sort of mindset,"

To that mindset, he blends rhythm patterns that are not of the standard category, as he will show this week at the First Fridays at the Frick performance in Point Breeze.

"I guess you could say my music is jazz steeped in the music of the African diaspora," says Lea (pronounced, Lee). "We try to take a look at the music of a lot of different African cultures and blend it together."

Besides displaying that in concerts, this fall he also will be teaching it when he begins work at Gettysburg College in Adams County. His wife, Virginia, teaches in the school of education at the college.

Lea grew up in New York City and New Jersey, listening to Afro-Caribbean music and becoming influenced by the work of an African master drummer he met when Lea was 11.

He began working with musicians such as saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and vocalist Leon Thomas Jr. early in Lea's career, which exposed him to many world rhythms.

That continued when he moved to the San Francisco area in the late '60s.

His albums, such as "Soul Pools," have reflected that cultural mixture. He has a new one coming out in August, "Umbo Weti," which looks at the roots of the yodeling sound often used in the vocal work of Thomas (1937-99).

Although his music is not of a predictable sort, Lea does not anticipate having any trouble working with a crew of Pittsburgh-area musicians -- keyboardist Howie Alexander, saxophonist Jay Willis and bassist Dan Wasson.

He says he worked with them at a talent presentation workshop at the Byham Theater, Downtown, in the spring, and that has helped build some understanding. Getting together once more before Friday's show should solidify that work.

After all, his music has many of its roots in jazz.

"That's where my heart is," he says.

Additional Information:

Babatunde Lea

When: 7 p.m. Friday; gates open at 5:30 p.m.

Admission: $5-per-adult donation is suggested

Where: Frick Art & Historical Center, 7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze

Details: 412-371-0600

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