How I Travel: Leon Mobley

Leon Mobley: Drumming Around the World

Once you’ve seen Leon Mobley play the djembe drum, you’re virtually guaranteed to become a fan. Not only is he amazingly talented (you’ve gotta see this!), but his infectious smile and positivity instantly draw people in—no matter how far they’re sitting from the stage. Since getting his start on the PBS show Zoom, Leon has built an eclectic career playing with musicians like Stevie Wonder, Dave Matthews, Michael Jackson and Carlos Santana. Best known as the percussionist for Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, Leon also fronts his own band, Da Lion. He is currently collaborating with Nas and Damian Marley both on tour and in the studio.

This week we spoke with Leon from his home in Los Angeles, CA about travel and the universality of music.

I went to school in Dover, Massachusetts and I was born in Roxbury.

I was part of the METCO Busing Program. I was bused to an all white school and going there in the morning and seeing the difference, coming from Cathedral Projects and going to Dover—where my host family lived next door to the governor—imagine that at the age of 6, seeing the differences between those two worlds. That’s my first memory of leaving home and I did it every morning. I learned at a very young age that there was a different world out there.

Leon soloing
Leon soloing

When I was 17 I traveled to Trinidad on my own by collecting cans.

I collected enough cans to buy a ticket to Trinidad. That’s how much I wanted to travel. And that was another definite cultural shock leaving the airport where everyone was white to place where everyone was black. I was like “whoa.”

I’ve traveled more than half my life.

I’m 49, my first trip was at 17—I was 25 when I moved from Boston– I always knew that’s what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to live this life.

In the music industry you don’t get a lot of time in one place.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to Italy and just driven past the sights without even seeing them. We would just see the signs. I had been to Italy maybe five or six times and seen signs for the Leaning Tower of Pisa every time. Finally I was in the bus with Ben and the guys and I screamed “there’s a sign that the Leaning Tower is only 50 kilometers that way. Can we just make a right turn?” And man: amazing! Utterly amazing to see.

Leon with Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals
Leon with Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals

In some ways you look for the sights that give you bragging rights.

So, now I’ve been to the Leaning Tower but mainly my travel style is about going to the communities, seeing the ghettos, meeting the people, eating the food of the people. My thing is to try to live like the people there. I don’t want to be in a hotel. I want to be like the people. Everywhere I’ve gone, I go to where the people live. In Brazil, I’m there in the favela [Portuguese for a shanty-town or slum]—that’s where I go. I went to the Vigário Geral in Rio, to get in you have to cross the bridge, there are guys with AK 47s guarding it. When I’m in Jamaica I’m in Kinston, I’m in Stony Hill, I’m up in Saint Joseph’s and Saint Mary’s. After awhile, when you’re on tour, you don’t have time, don’t have transport. At that point I’m in my hotel room. But mostly I want to find people, and hang out with people.

I got sick one time eating too many cashews in Senegal.

Cashews were in season. It was my last night and I wasn’t going to sleep, I went to have some fish and rice. Fish with rice is the national dish of Senegal, Ceebu Jen, and I wanted to eat all I could before leaving. I was trying to eat as many cashews as I could too. They were so sweet. When I got to the airport I got so sick that I threw up in the airport—and everyone knew me because I had just been on the local TV station.

Because I’m always going someplace with music, I try to spend time at home.

But I’ll go to Africa and when I’m there—I’m just there. The last time I packed up my bags just to go somewhere else was Africa back in 2001 and I ended up performing before the president and the dignitaries of Ghana for Christmas. It was all on TV and on the radio. And I went there on vacation. That always happens. So then my vacation turns into work.

Le Dome Marseille, France
Le Dome Marseille, France

Music is the universal language.

That’s honest. I have been able to go into the worst places – Vigário Geral, the US embassy doesn’t go in there, and I’m getting in there through my music. The music is a definite connection and form of communication. Music tells a lot about you and can communicate with a lot of different people.

As for food, we’re not stupid—we know fried foods are bad for us.

Sometimes it’s hard, food wise, but when you’re dealing with people, seek out people of like mind. I learn how to say fish in every language. Poisson, peixes, pescado…and I like certain kinds—so pescado blanco. And rice is everywhere. Give me rice, veggies, fish—I’m good to go. There are only so many foods in the world—everyone has veggies. There are things you won’t find, like hotdogs. People ask “what’s a hotdog” and you’re like “it’s all the junk of a cow put together” and people are like “yeah, we don’t eat that.” No wonder.

I’m blind when I go somewhere.

I’m going to Abu Dhabi in two weeks and I’m going blind. I think to myself, “So we’re going to the Emirates, Dubai is there, I know that, but I’m going to Abu Dhabi—I don’t know the difference yet: but I’m gonna see!” You learn things reading and in school, so you know a few things about most places—then when you get there you’re going to learn a lot more. You may not know about Paul Revere but when you go to Boston I can teach you about him. I was in Jamaica and I learned about Paul Bogle and saw where he lived. He was a revolutionary too. I’d heard of Bogle before and all off sudden I’m like “I see now.” I didn’t go there looking for it but “blam” there it is.

I sleep on the plane.

I don’t sleep the night before I travel because I like to sleep on the plane. Anytime I’m on the plane, I’m sleeping.

Traveling has always been an education for me.

You can sit and talk about the Eiffel tower—but to go to the top is something else. To walk under, to take the elevator—it’s crazy.

I always want to find a music store.

I want to find a CD store where I can buy some music from that place.

With Ben Harper in Lille
With Ben Harper in Lille

I have no favorites.

I just know that one day I’ll have a house in West Africa, Asia, the US and one in South America…just so I can go everywhere. And if I was living in Europe, it’ll have to be…maybe Switzerland. The water’s so clean there. You can just drink out of the pipes that run out from the wall.

The strangest thing I ever had was fondue de cheval—that’s horse fondue with cheese.

When I found out what it was, I had one piece and finished up. I don’t eat horse. Matter of fact, that was in Switzerland too, in the French part of Switzerland.

I eat street food though.

When I was in Ghana, food sat right by the road with dust flying by. But that’s what they had to eat, so I was like “okay let’s eat.”

I’m a strange traveler.

When I’m on tour my space is like headquarters. I have speakers, computer set up, I travel with two suitcases – one big one and an electronic bag. It has hard drives, all kinds of music and a keyboard. I’m able to move quick though.

The second I arrive someplace I’m going to connect with people.

I want to find someone I can connect with. I know people all over because of that.

I really like to have a hotel room.

So that when I go to do what I want to do, I don’t have worry about stepping on anyone’s toes. I’ll spend lots of time with you—but when I’ve got to go, I’ve got go.

Backing Ben Harper at Jackson Hole
Backing Ben Harper at Jackson Hole

Touring, I sacrifice a lot.

I don’t get to see my family a lot—my mom, my sisters, my brothers, my wife…I tell people who get into this business: you sacrifice your family.

I’m such a people person that I can study areas and see who’s who.

You can always see the bad-boy because they’re trying to meet an American. You can recognize certain areas. You can tell when you’re in the business district. Sometimes, I’ll look at a map. Because it gives you a layout of the city so you can get your bearings. But when you talk to people, they’ll tell you the things you need to know.

If you want to give me a plane ticket anywhere, I’d go to Africa.

You can fly me to any airport you want too. Because once I’m there I’m going all over.

Bus is my least favorite mode of travel.

Tour buses can be nice. Flying is nice, driving is nice, the train too—but the Greyhound is too skanky for me, too scandalous.

I’m not easily impressed—but the Louvre is impressive.

I love art. I also really want to see the pyramids. The Sphinx, I’d love to see that.

Be open.

You’ve got to train your palette, open your mind and open your heart. Don’t think like an American—try to do like the local people do. Because things aren’t going to happen the way they do at home. The first time I went to Africa it took me three days to get somewhere that wasn’t at all far away. You can’t go there expecting things to be the way that things are at home…it’s not like that. I’ve seen places where you can bring a dog into a restaurant and let it eat right next to you. That’s how they do it in that certain place.

Leon soloing in Verona
Leon soloing in Verona

My iPod has 18,000 songs and when I travel it stays on shuffle.

Everything from Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger to Beethoven and Bob Marley. I collect music from different countries wherever I go.

The Amazon, that’s one freaky thing I’ve seen on tour.

I was with Ben Harper and the Dave Matthews Band and I saw the Rio Negro—where the water looks like coffee—then there’s a spot where the rivers meet and, boom, it turns blue!

I’ve been to a lot of beautiful beaches.

Jamaica, South Africa…even Ghana has some beautiful beaches. I used to go to Kauai a lot. That was my vacation spot. I had a buffalo burger there, because a local told me to try it. I didn’t even know they made buffalo burgers.

The most astonishing person I’ve ever met on the road was Nelson Mandela.

I played for him when he got out of prison. He struck me like a statue: concrete, firm, strong, determined. The way he talked to me, the things we talked about. He wanted to take a photo with me: it was deep. He was a nice guy; he liked my drum playing too.

Leon and Nelson Mandela
Leon and Nelson Mandela

I like traveling with friends and with my wife.

Sometimes you’re out there with the band and you’re having fun, doing what you want, but I like traveling with my wife too. She doesn’t see what I get to see. I was able to bring my wife to Paris—that was lovely. It was expensive…but it was lovely.

I learn every time I travel.

I love to learn, I love the truth. I’m a truth seeker.

Though he tours virtually year-round, Leon does an amazing job connecting with his fans at as well as on his myspace and Facebook fan pages. He is sponsored by Remo Drums where he has a Signature Series Djembe named after him. You can also follow him on Twitter at @LeonMobley.

“How I Travel” is a BootsnAll series publishing every Tuesday in an effort to look at the unique and diverse travel habits of some of the world’s most well known and proficient road warriors. Got ideas for who we should talk to? Drop us a note.

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all photographs provided by Leon Mobley & Friends and may not be used without permission

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