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Recounting M'Butu 

Veteran Atlanta percussionist tells his story

"I'll try not to make it such a long story," says the enigmatic Atlanta percussionist, Count M'Butu. With that, he launches into the epic saga of how he transformed himself from a regular 9-to-5 working man, Larry Jones, to the African rhythm maestro who has just put out a debut solo album -- See the Sun on Atlanta's Terminus Records -- featuring many of Georgia's jam-band luminaries, including Col. Bruce Hampton and members of Widespread Panic.

"I'll try not to make it such a long story," says the enigmatic Atlanta percussionist, Count M'Butu. With that, he launches into the epic saga of how he transformed himself from a regular 9-to-5 working man, Larry Jones, to the African rhythm maestro who has just put out a debut solo album -- See the Sun on Atlanta's Terminus Records -- featuring many of Georgia's jam-band luminaries, including Col. Bruce Hampton and members of Widespread Panic.

Relaxing in an easy chair, the Count is the perfect picture of the shared cultural loyalties he developed during a musical odyssey that sent him from Atlanta to Africa and back again. Work your way down from the regal, traditional African feel of his pillbox skullcap and you'll discover the fly, urban-flavored And1 basketball sneakers that owe more to North Avenue than Nigeria. Far from a contradiction, this is an honest representation of M'Butu, an authentically trained African percussionist with Atlanta roots. And like any native Southerner worth his corn, the Count knows how to spin a yarn.

I didn't start playing professionally till I was 32. I started pretty late. But growing up, my family -- my sisters, brothers, mother and father -- were always singing, gospel music particularly. My motivation came from the church and my brothers. We sang the Lord's Prayer all the time. But my brothers would always sing the lead vocals and I would sing the background. ...

M'Butu is perhaps best known for his work during the '90s as the sage percussion-playing elder with Hampton's Aquarium Rescue Unit. But he turned 50 during his tenure with the band and, by that time, he'd already established himself as seasoned touring musician Larry Jones. In 1976, Jones moved back to Atlanta from Africa, where he had studied traditional drumming and drum-making while performing as a musician with several African ballet ensembles. Shortly after his return, he performed as the house percussionist for the short-lived, nationally syndicated musical variety show, "The Memphis Music Store," accompanying such jazz greats as Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.

... The problem with singing the background was that all you sang were the words 'Our Father.' I hated singing those two words, I wanted to lead. But they wouldn't allow that, so I promised myself that once I got old enough, I wouldn't have to do this anymore. I wanted to sing or play an instrument. So I kind of walked away from [church music]. When I didn't have to please my parents and I was old enough to do my own thing, I just left that stuff alone. ...

Following the cancellation of the televised variety show in 1979, Jones got a gig playing with jazz vocalist Nancy Wilson. Later hat same year, he strapped on a cosmic jumpsuit and toured with George Clinton and Parliament/ Funkadelic. But soon enough, he would land back home in Atlanta, working and teaching drumming.

... Soon [after giving up church music] I met this young lady, and fell in love. I was about 13 or 14. So I wrote a song for her. And I went to Dr. Cochran -- he was the head of the YMCA -- and I played him this song I had written. I wanted to know, what did he think of my song? Had he told me that he thought the song was OK, music is probably the direction I would have gone. So I started out, and began singing and playing ...

In the late '80s, Jones met up with a group of talented and eccentric Atlanta musicians led by Col. Bruce Hampton. All in one eventful night -- his first gig sitting in with the band -- he mistook Hampton for a bum, got abandoned onstage mid-set by his fellow musicians and was officially christened with his new performing name.

... Dr. Cochran waited till I'd played the whole song, then he got up and put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Son, they tell me you're a good athlete.' So I said, 'Yeah, I can play football and basketball OK. But what did you think of the song?' He said, 'They say you run real fast also.' I'm like, 'What does that have to do with the song?' He said, 'Well, I'm trying to break it to you gently. You don't have it -- talent at piano or singing.' I felt like if Dr. Cochran thought I wasn't good at music, no one would. So I pursued other things. ...

In one of his legendary acts of clairvoyance, Hampton named the percussionist Count M'Butu, not knowing at the time that during a period of intense self-discovery in Africa, the drummer had lived with a family named M'Butu. One day after sitting in for the first time, the band called and asked the Count to be a permanent fixture in the Aquarium Rescue Unit.

... I think I was in my late 20s when I started to realize I should be doing something that I really like. I had thought that I was one of those people who just had to go to work eight hours a day. So I pursued that for a while. And I was unhappy. The more money I made, the unhappier I got. And I thought that I was supposed to be happier the more financially stable I got. Then I realized that this work wasn't my niche. I discovered that Dr. Cochran wasn't all the things I thought he was. ...

While on the H.O.R.D.E. tour with ARU, the Count was pulled into an extended family of improvisational bands, including soon-to-explode Widespread Panic. Many of the connections he forged would make their way into the recording sessions for the Count's ongoing solo project, the Count M'Butu Orchestra.

... I knew I wanted to get into music again. So I kind of looked around trying to figure out what would I do. What instrument would I take up? Percussion and conga players were calm -- they all changed their name to Abdullah -- there was something about those cats I kind of admired. It seemed like their life was something I wanted to be. ...

Although See the Sun is graced with a general Latin sensibility, the Count M'Butu Orchestra's debut tosses back and forth between the traditional Latin style of vocalist Graciela Lopez, who's also M'Butu's wife, and the more frenetic fusion style of the Aquarium Rescue Unit, whose members also are represented generously on the recording.

... The thing about Atlanta in the early days is that there was nowhere you could go to learn how to play. I went around and tried to find anybody who knew something about percussion, and they were hard to find. One day I had a friend come over to my house -- I had my drums set up and he proceeded to play this rhythm which just blew my mind. And he told me about this school, where he'd learned it -- located off North Avenue. The government sponsored this school. This was when Jimmy Carter was president and Maynard Jackson was mayor for the first time. And both of them were very supportive of the arts. They brought in African drummers, African art, wood carvers, who taught their skills. That was my beginnings and, through that, I got a chance to go to Africa ...

Count M'Butu opens for Project Z Sat., June 2, at the Roxy. Show time is 9 p.m. Tickets are $12.50 in advance, available through Ticketmaster, or $15 day of show. For more information, call 404-233-7699.

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