African percussionist hits right tones with students

If you’re going to learn an instrument, you may as well learn from the best.

So reasoned a number of community members who headed to the Folk Music Center on Sunday, May 5 for a workshop in the djembe, a skin-covered West African hand drum, taught by world-famous percussionist Leon Mobley.

Mr. Mobley showed the students how to coax a bass, mid and high tone from the djembe, then led them in a combination employing the tones with increasing speed and agility.

“Think but don’t think,” Mr. Mobley enjoined his students.

The above command, meant to emphasize the primacy of feeling in creating rhythm, might be a bit hard to grasp. Mr. Mobley had plenty of straightforward advice, however.

To make a warm bass tone with the right and left hand, beats referred to as gun and dun, students should windmill their arms like a swim stroke. Their palm would then bounce off the middle of the drum’s skin like a ball.

To achieve the perfect wrist bend for getting the high pa-ta high tone from the drum’s edge, students can raise their hands to cup their ears in an “I’m listening” gesture.

Such advice stems from countless hours of study and practice. Mr. Mobley, who grew up in Boston, recalls that when he was 4 years old, his mother bought him a Beatles drum set manufactured by Remo.

“I played it so much that my brother and sister kicked holes in the drum,” he laughed.

In the first grade, he switched to the djembe.  Before long, he was admitted to an afterschool program at the Elma Lewis School of Fine Arts, where he studied for 10 years under Nigerian master drummer Babatunde Olatunji . In 1973, a pre-teen Mr. Mobley got his first touch of fame when he was cast on the PBS children’s television show “Zoom.”

His time at the Elma Lewis School was just the beginning of the percussion education of Mr. Mobley, who emphasizes that knowledge is power.

“You have to know the ledge, or else you’re going to fall off,” he cautioned.

In 1977, he joined the Bokan-Deye Dance Company and began studying under the Sengalese master drummer Ibrahim Camera. Then, from 1979 to 1982, he traveled across Africa, South America and the Caribbean, studying and performing. 

His long apprenticeship has borne fruit. Mr. Mobley, co-founder of Da Lion and Djimbe West African Drummers and a member of Ben Harper’s Innocent Criminals, has gained increasing notice over the years.  He’s been asked to collaborate with a Who’s Who of famous musicians, including Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, The Fugees, Madonna, Mick Jagger, Nas and Damien Marley.

The performance that remains a highlight of his life, however, was when he was invited to play for anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison after 27 years as a political prisoner.

“It was him coming out for the first time—a lot of things were new. He was a very warm soul, very open,” Mr. Mobley said. “He was trying to understand, to be grateful, because a lot of people had put a lot of energy out for him. He was also thankful for that chance to hear live music.” 

Mr. Mobley continues to teach and tour across the globe. He always finds time to return to Claremont, however, particularly the Folk Music Center, which he considers to be a home away from home. After all, Mr. Harper, his fellow Innocent Criminal, owns the Folk Music Center, which is managed by his mother, Ellen Chase-Verdries.

 “Ben’s family is like my family. I tell Ellen she’s like my mom,” Mr. Mobley said.

This past Saturday, he showed up for his workshop clad in a “Rastifari Souljas” jersey, a fedora and green-and-yellow patent leather high-top tennis shoes. Through charisma and persistence, he imparted the basics of djembe to 10 students, one of whom was a remarkably focused 2-year-old who perched on a bench next to his mother, beating a child-sized drum. The boy’s grandmother had studied the djembe before, and another class participant had played the hand drum for 5 years. While 2 people in the class were rock ‘n roll drummers, the other students, one a teenaged boy, were all novices when it came to African percussion.

Mr. Mobley had heartening words for those who found his workshop to be a bit challenging. While he is a natural percussionist, whose mother has told him he was “playing drums in the womb,” it took him some months to really nail the high.

“It came to me while I was at a bus stop,” he said, emphasizing his words with a sharp pa-ta that resonated throughout the music store. When asked by one student how long it took him to master the djembe, Mr. Mobley answered simply: “I don’t think I’ve mastered it yet.”

Mr. Mobley will return to the City of Trees later this spring when he takes the stage at the annual Claremont Folk Festival on Saturday, June 15. It will be Mr. Mobley’s 3rd festival, and the first time the event is held at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden.

Jerry O’Sullivan, who has been helping to organize the festival as well as booking events at the Folk Music Center for some years, said he is pleased Mr. Mobley agreed to perform.

“I’ve seen Da Lion perform at the festival. To see the full djembe ensemble along with the dancing is so exciting,” Mr. O’Sullivan said. “I’m excited in general about this year’s show. It’s a beautiful setting, obviously, and the line-up is very eclectic, from gypsy jazz to African music to music of the 1920s and ‘30s.”

Admission to the Claremont Folk Festival, which runs from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., is $25. For information and tickets, visit

—Sarah Torribio


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