A Lifelong Love Affair with the Bass Drum

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We finish our series on master musicians of the lower frequencies by talking to Leon Mobley about his affection for the bass drum.


How can you tell when it's time to get a child a drum set?

Mr. LEON MOBLEY (Drummer): I banged on jars and tables. I got reports from school that all I did was tap, tap, tap.

CHIDEYA: That's Leon Mobley. You might say he was born for the drum. Nowadays, he's among the country's top percussionists. His current gig is with Ben Harper's band, but there are a few other names on his resume.

Mr. MOBLEY: Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Robert Randolph, Dave Matthews, Blind Boys of Alabama. The list goes on and on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Mobley confessed to his affiliations with well-known purveyors of American music under the heat of our spotlight. Today, he caps our line-up of musicians who play in the lower frequencies.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: The African bass drum is the intriguing sound coming from your radio. The triggerman is Leon Mobley.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MOBLEY: Focusing on the bass tones in the orchestra of the djembe family, we would be playing jumjum drums.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MOBLEY: If I were my mother telling the story, she says I played in the womb. She and my father used to sit up at night and watch me play inside her stomach. So I used to bang on everything as a child. My mother had to buy me a drum set at the age of four, a Beatles drum set. And I played it night and day, and my brothers and sisters kicked holes in it. And I've just playing ever since.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MOBLEY: At the age of six, I started studying drums with Babatunde Olatunji, the master drummer from Nigeria at the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. I've been tuned into African drums ever since then, when I met Olatunji as a child and was enthralled the enthusiasm, the vigor and the grace inside of the music and dance of Africa.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. MOBLEY: The body is affected by frequencies. A lot of people think that the high pitch is the one that really affects the body, but that's just the sharp pitch. The warmer pitch that soaks deep into the system is the bass tone, which is the lead drum, which is the base in which we all stand on. It's the ground. It's the bass in which we all have the ability to grow firm.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MOBLEY: When we were captured as slaves and brought to this country, they actually banned the drum because they could see that we could communicate from far distances. I can take you to a park in Inglewood today where there's a police (unintelligible) sign says no drum playing in the park. They're still afraid of how powerful the drum is in terms of speaking the language and communicating in a secret code, basically. There's much power in the ability to draft the tones of the drum in order to affect the body, in order to communicate with people long distances and let them know what's going on. The power of the drum.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MOBLEY: I would say this: no matter who you are, no matter where you come from, as long as you are human, you have a heart that beats inside your chest. Therefore, we are all drums - with the heartbeat, we live. So while we're here, play your drum

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: That was percussionist Leon Mobley. You an hear the rest of our profiles of musicians playing in the lower frequencies at NPR.org. Our series was produced by Roy Hurst.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: That's our show for today. Thanks for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show, visit NPR.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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