Rhythm's Mama is deeply embedded in the African roots of Cuba and beyond, playing Babatunde Lea's original compositions and jazz standards in the rhythms of the African diaspora. Le Voyage's music is composed in the moment, always aiming for the spirit that lies beneath the music.
We interviewed Babatunde Lea of Rhythm's Mama and Steve Hirsh of Le Voyage to find out more.
Tell us about your experiences with Cuban music.
I grew up in the New York City area and was exposed at early age to Afro-Cuban music and dance bands. I had nine aunts and they'd take me dancing. I knew how to mambo before I could walk. I started playing marching drums at age 11, congas at 13-14. A cousin who was 4-5 years older than me took me to NYC to see bands. I saw Babatunde Olatunji in 1959 and it blew my mind. That's when I decided I wanted to be a drummer, that that's how I wanted to live my life. Growing up in NYC, I saw everyone. Ray Baretto came to my high school and signed my conga. I saw Eddie and Charlie Palmieri, Tito Puente, Mongo Santamaria. I haven't been to Cuba, but I am still deeply influenced by the music.
How does African culture influence your approach to jazz standards?
I was so exposed to Afro-based music that it is the foundation of whatever I play. I look for the African-ness in all my music, no matter who I'm working with. That's what I know. I've studied the traditions from Senegal, Cuba, Brazil, Mali. I play all kinds of percussion instruments, trap set, and bata. It's a no-brainer that I'm bringing that to my music. Because the music comes form the psyche of African-American people in this hemisphere, the music is already connected to Africa. The African-ness is already there in jazz; I just look for it.
What is your approach to "composing in the moment."
We just play. Someone makes a sound, someone responds, and off we go. It's conversational--someone starts a conversation, and the rest of us chime in as we are moved to.
How does the group communicate during performance?
Primarily through sound. Personally, I play with my eyes closed most of the time, so visual cues wouldn't be much use. But we are paying close attention to what each other is saying on their instrument and the communication happens through what we play (or don't play) in response to what we're hearing.
In what ways do you bring out the spirit that lies beneath the music?
There are lots of different ways to make music. What we refer to as musical genres or styles is about applying a set of rules to sound--rules about rhythm, pitch, harmony, rules about instrumentation, rules about who plays what and when. But all good music is about using those conventions to express feelings, to communicate something about who we are, to play the story of our lives. Some people think that free improvised music has no rules, but it's the opposite--we use all the rules. We just don't confine ourselves to any one set of rules. So, the musicians bring all their musical experience to the table, their experiences with all the different kinds of music they've absorbed, and their life experiences. The goal is to use all the tools available to us to express ourselves, to share our love with each other and with the audience. And to me, that's the spirit behind all music.