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An Afro-Rock Band With Spirit : Congo-born Bateke and his group will provide emphatically upbeat dance tunes at a free concert Sunday in Santa Clarita.

August 27, 1993|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for Valley Life.

Those aren't ghosts exactly that bandleader Bateke sees around him whenever he performs. And yet, he says, they're always on stage with him: mentors and friends, both alive and deceased.

"Every time I play, their spirits are in front of me," the Congo-born musician says. "I see them, alive, dancing."

There is the man who encouraged an 11-year-old Bateke to "Play! Play! Play! Don't give up!" There are the pioneers of popular Central African music: Zaire's Henri Powane, the Congo's Paul Kamba. And there is Tino Barroza, a talented young guitarist, saxophonist and pianist who would have come with Bateke to the United States had he not been killed in a Cameroon auto accident in 1969.

Even today, Bateke is moved to tears when he speaks of his old friend. "He left me with his spirit," says Bateke, who finally arrived in the United States in 1985. "That's what I'm carrying today. Every time when I play, I call his name. He's always with me."

That's not to suggest that the performances of his band Bateke Beat are solemn occasions. The Congo-Zaire-based Afro-rock that his band brings to a free concert Sunday at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita is emphatically upbeat dance music.

"I don't like to play music for people who sit down," says Bateke, who plays saxophone, bass and occasional drums in concert, and compares his band's rhythm to a Latin rumba. "Music is to make people happy. Some music is made to make people cry, but I don't want to make people cry."

Bateke Beat's sound was called "almost hypnotic" in an Orange County performance reviewed in September by Times critic Bill Kohlhaase. In recent performances, the five-man Bateke Beat has been joined by talking drum-player Remi Kabaka, a Nigerian veteran of trumpeter Hugh Masakela's band.

Bateke had been playing music since his father gave him a drum when he was about 3 years old. Within a few years, though, he was looking elsewhere to express himself musically and turned first to the flute, and later to clarinet, saxophone, bass and other instruments.

Part of his inspiration during his childhood were memories of the bands of Western missionaries passing through the Congo, and of a concert by African-American jazz musicians in Kinshasha, Zaire.

"In Africa, drumming is not a big deal," Bateke says. "If you play guitar or sax or those things, people regard you better, because they are foreign instruments. So when you play that, they respect you."

Music has since become his passport to the rest of Africa and the world. Before landing in the United States, Bateke spent three years as lead saxophonist for acclaimed Nigerian bandleader Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

"I was too young to leave Africa because I was afraid to lose the culture. I first wanted to learn different beats and different countries.

"I've never been afraid to take my music anywhere, any corner of the world. When the music is good, everybody will like it."

Where and When What: Bateke Beat (with the Formula One Band). Location: College of the Canyons, Santa Clarita. Hours: Two 45-minute sets between 5:30 and 8 p.m. Sunday. Price: Free. Call: (805) 255-4910.

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