Olatunji, Babatunde 1927–

views updated May 11 2018

Babatunde Olatunji 1927


At a Glance

Selected discography


Before there was world beat music, before there was Afropop or any of the other genres of African music marketed to Western audiences, there was Babatunde Olatunji. Olatunjis Drums of Passion album may have been the first African music release recorded in a modern U.S. studio. That album and its successor Zungo! proved extremely influential in the world of progressive 1960s jazz, helping to introduce saxophonist John Coltrane and other jazz players to African music. Olatunji himself made the United States his home and became a durable and enthusiastic ambassador of West African culture.

A member of the Yoruba ethnic group, Olatunji was born in 1927 in the Nigerian village of Ajido, about forty miles from the capital-to-be of Lagos. His father was a fisherman. Traditional Yoruba drumming accompanied many of the events of village life, and Olatunji was taken by his great-aunt to hear drum ceremonies. Radio also came to rural Nigeria during Olatunjis youth, however, and he told the Boston Globe that he heard music from all over the world. I heard the big bands of Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington on my shortwave in BBC broadcasts, as well as symphonic compositions. I also heard the contributions of African-American gospel and blues, as well as [black classical vocalist] Roland Hayes singing a concert setting of Shango.

Olatunji and a cousin read in a copy of Readers Digest magazine that the Rotary International fraternal organization was offering scholarships for college study in the United States, and sent in letters of application. Both were winners, and Olatunji attended historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta; he made ends meet by working summers, including a stint on a tobacco farm. Afrocentric thinking among African-American college students was still decades away, and Olatunji found that his classmates labored under the misapprehension that Africa was a land populated by Tarzan-like figures or people with tails. Undiscouraged, he performed African music at the schools evening teas and organized and performed at concerts featuring African and African-American students.

When Olatunji moved north to pursue a graduate degree in political science at New York University, he continued to supplement his meager income by performing. He hoped to become a diplomat, but two events combined to push him toward a musical career. One was a 1958 visit to Ghana as a delegate to the All African Peoples Conference organized by Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah, who told him, as Olatunji recalled in a Boston Globe interview, I know you want to be a diplomat, but I think you should be a cultural ambassador. Olatunji returned from Ghana with his entire personal collection of drums.

The second event that sealed Olatunjis commitment to music was a concert he gave at New Yorks Radio City Music Hall with Columbia Records producer John Hammond in attendance. Hammond was the legendary executive responsible for discovering a string of American music icons running from jazz singer Billie Holiday to rock star Bruce Springsteen, and he quickly brought Olatunji into the studio. The result was the Drums of Passion LP, released in 1959, followed by Zungo! (1961).

At a Glance

Born in 1927 in Ajido, Nigeria; son of a village fisherman. Education: Morehouse College, graduated, 1954; New York University, completed coursework for Ph.D. in political science.

Career: Began performing at Morehouse College to entertain and instruct fellow students; performed at Radio City Music Hall, New York, late-1950s; signed to Columbia Records by talent executive John Hammond, 1958; released debut album, Drums of Passion, 1959; other releases for Columbia, early 1960s; performed at New York Worlds Fair, 1964; opened Olatunji Center for African Culture, Harlem, Manhattan, NY, 1965; composed music for Spike Lee film Shes Gotta Have It, 1986; signed to Rykodisc label, 1986; with Mickey Hart formed Planet Drum ensemble and recorded album, 1991; Esalen Institute, faculty instructor, 1970s-.

Awards: Grammy award for Planet Drum, 1991.

Addresses: Office Olatunji Music, Inc., 1611 Jackson St., NE, Washington, DC 20018.

Modern critics have quibbled that these albums, which featured a vocal chorus composed mostly of non-Africans, werent entirely authentic representations of African culture. Columbia marketers persuaded Olatunji to release Drums of Passion under the name Michael Olatunji (later printings restored his African name), and the album did nothing to improve Olatunjis financial condition. I didnt know anything about contracts, he told the Washington Post, so I put everything in the public domain. So I dont get anything from Drums of Passion.

After several Columbia releases, Olatunji did not record again until the late 1980s. He was often in precarious straits financially, and at least once made plans to return to Africa for good. A performer of nonstop energy, however, he never paused in his efforts to popularize African music. He performed at the New York World Fairs African Pavilion in 1964, using the proceeds to open his own Olatunji Center for African Culture in New Yorks Harlem neighborhood. Olatunji began offering workshops in African music, dance, and language, and it wasnt long before leading jazz musicians began to pay close attention.

Hand in hand with the formal experiments of 1960s free jazz went an effort to return to African roots. Musicians such as Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, and Clark Terry incorporated African percussion rhythms into their music, and Coltrane, whose last performance before his death in 1967 took place at Olatunjis Harlem center, dedicated a composition called Tunji to the musician. Today, along with Afro-Latin musicians such as Mario Bauza, Olatunji is recognized as a pioneer in the fusion of African music and jazz. He also wrote a book for children, Musical Instruments of Africa, in 1965.

Despite his influence, Olatunji found financial support hard to come by. Corporate support didnt materializeExxon doesnt support my kind of music, though they get oil from my country, Olatunji told the Washington Post. And he found that government grants often supported bureaucratic structures rather than going to meet primary needs. How can I hire an administrator for $15,000 to adminster $10,000? he asked the Post rhetorically.

Olatunji hung on, expanding his educational activities to other cities and continuing to perform. By the late 1980s he was gradually beginning to gain more recognition. Olatunji joined the faculties of New Ageoriented enterprises such as the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, and made some 2,000 appearances on college campuses both in the United States and abroad. He composed music for Spike Lees debut feature, Shes Gotta Have It, in 1986. Signed to the Rykodisc label that year, he released new installments in what became a Drums of Passion series. Olatunji began collaborating with American musicians interested in world music, such as Carlos Santana and Mickey Hart of the rock group the Grateful Dead.

In 1991 Olatunji and Hart formed the ensemble Planet Drum, whose self-titled album won a Grammy award. The late 1990s saw the re-release of Olatunjis pioneering Columbia recordings in a four-CD boxed set, and the musician kept up a full touring schedule interrupted only by a hospitalization for diabetes in the fall of 2001. Through it all, Olatunji continued to be the ambassador for African rhythm that Kwame Nkrumah had hoped he would become. Rhythm is the soul of life, Olatunji told the Hartford Courant in 2001. Every cell in your body moves in a constant rhythm. When we get out of rhythm, that is when we get into trouble.

Selected discography

Drums of Passion, Columbia, 1959.

Zungo!, Columbia, 1961.

More Drums of Passion, Columbia.

Drums of Passion: The Invocation, Rykodisc, 1988.

Drums of Passion: The Beat, Rykodisc, 1989.

Planet Drum, 1991 (with Mickey Hart).

Drums of Passion: Celebrate Freedom, Justice , Rykodisc, 1993.

Love Drum Talk, Chesky, 1997.



Boston Globe, May 8, 1998, p. C17.

Hartford Courant, October 5, 2001, p. B3.

New York Times, January 17, 1981, Section 1, p. 14.

Washington Post, July 2, 1979, p. B1.







James M. Manheim

Olatunji, Babatunde

views updated May 29 2018

Babatunde Olatunji

Drummer, singer

Pioneering Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji influenced contemporary jazz's turn to African rhythms back in the 1960s. A respected musician and tireless promoter of African music and culture, he was also a key figure in the rise of world-beat music in the 1980s, and he teamed with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart to record the Grammy Award-winning 1991 release, Planet Drum. Olatunji died of complications from advanced diabetes in April of 2003, just a day before his 76th birthday, and was eulogized in a variety of publications. Sing Out! 's Richard Dorsett termed him "African music's foremost ambassador of the power of rhythm," while New York Times music critic Jon Pareles recalled the drummer's personal philosophy: "Rhythm is the soul of life," Olatunji liked to say. "The whole universe revolves in rhythm. Everything and every human action revolves in rhythm."

Born on April 7, 1927, Olatunji grew up in the fishing village of Ajido, some 40 miles from Nigeria's largest city, Lagos. His father was a fisherman, and the family belonged to the Yoruba tribe, one of the country's largest ethnic groups. Drumming was an integral part of Yoruba ceremonial life, and Olatunji was fascinated by the form from an early age. "I was very inquisitive," he told Guardian journalist Ken Hunt, "and every weekend I would go to village festivals. I was always behind those master drummers, watching them play." He also came of age during an era when the first radio sets appeared in Nigeria, and he was drawn to the sounds of American jazz, gospel, and classical music heard on the British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) World Service.

In his teens, Olatunji moved to Lagos to attend a Baptist school, and he read about a Rotary International Foundation scholarship to the United States in a Reader's Digest magazine. Chosen as a 1950 recipient, Olatunji left his homeland for Atlanta, Georgia, where he enrolled at Morehouse College, a historic black school. He planned to study political science, but his interest in music continued to grow. He began to realize that the rhythms he heard in some Western musicparticularly those with links to African American slave culturehad echoes of the West African music of his youth. The Desi Arnaz hit "Babalu" was one example: it was a cover of an Afro-Cuban tune, but it possessed Yoruba roots. "I would sing the whole thing, give them the translation and people were amazed," he told the Guardian. "I would say, 'Well this is what has happened to African music.'"

Contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr.

Olatunji was perplexed that the African American students he met at Morehouse knew so little about the cultural riches of his homeland, and he was drawn into the burgeoning movement to bring traditional African music to a new audience in America. He performed in his first concert at the college in 1953 and became a member of the Morehouse jazz band. During his time at the school, he came to know future civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., just two years his senior. After earning his degree in 1954, Olatunji entered graduate school at New York University, with the goal of becoming a career diplomat. Still short on funds, he formed a drum and dance group that performed traditional West African music at multicultural events in the city; King even hired him to perform at civil rights rallies.

Olatunji was still active in campus politics, and he served as president of the African Students Unions of America for a time. In this capacity, he was invited to take part in the 1958 All African People's Conference in Accra, Ghana. The event had been the idea of Ghana's nationalist president, Kwame Nkrumah, and it was Nkrumah who suggested the career turn that shaped Olatunji's life. "I was still pursuing an academic and political career, but Nkrumah told me I should be our cultural ambassador," Olatunji recalled in an interview with George Kanzler, a writer for the Newark, New Jersey-based Star-Ledger. "He said African culture and personality had to be preserved." Nkrumah even arranged for a large shipment of drums to be sent back to New York for Olatunji.

Historic First Release

A Radio City Music Hall concert that Olatunji participated in served as another turning point. Columbia Records executive John Hammond, who had worked with Billie Holiday and would later discover both Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, signed Olatunji to the label, and his first release, Drums of Passion, appeared in 1959. It is considered the first African music ever recorded in a contemporary U.S. studio. Ethnomusicologists had brought back tapes of traditional ceremonial drumming, but Olatunji's debut "reached a mass public with its vivid sound and exotic song titles like 'Primitive Fire,'" noted Pareles in the New York Times.

Drums of Passion was actually released under the name "Michael" Olatunji but was later reissued under his own name. Poorly informed about his options, Olatunji also signed away his royalty rights, and in the end he earned little money from the record. He wrote music for the Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry's acclaimed play, A Raisin in the Sun, but earned just $300 from that job. In 1961 he performed at inauguration ceremonies for U.S. President John F. Kennedy, and he released his second LP, Zungo! The following year, he was mentioned with other black icons, including King, in Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Free." He was invited to perform at the African Pavilion of the 1964 New York World's Fair, and with money earned then he established the Olatunji Center for African Culture in Harlem a year later. There, Olatunji supplemented his income by teaching workshops in African music, dance, and language that were frequented by a new generation of jazz musicians in New York. The burgeoning "free jazz" movement incorporated African polyrhythms into its forms, and West African echoes became standard in new music from John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, and Clark Terry, among others. Coltrane even dedicated a song, "Tunji," to Olatunji, and the last concert the avant-garde saxophonist gave before his death in 1967 was at the Olatunji Center. Rock musician Carlos Santana covered Olatunji's "Jin-Go-LoBa," first heard on Drums of Passion, under the title "Jingo," for his first single in 1969.

For the Record . . .

Born on April 7, 1927, in Ajido, Nigeria; died on April 6, 2003, in Salinas, CA; son of a fisherman; married; wife's name Amy Bush; children: sons Omotola and Niyi, daughters Folasade and Modupe. Education: Earned degree from Morehouse College, 1954; enrolled at the New York University Graduate School of Public Administration, mid-1950s.

Chorister in United African Methodist Church, Lagos, Nigeria, late 1940s; gave first African musical performance at Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA, 1953;
formed drum and dance group in New York City, c. 1955; performed at Radio City Music Hall, 1957; signed to Columbia Records; released first album, Drums of Passion, 1959; composed music for the Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun ; performed at the African
Pavilion, New York World's Fair, 1964; founded Olatunji Center for African Culture, Harlem, NY, 1965; taught workshops and classes there in African music and culture; taught at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA, and at
the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY, 1970s; signed to Rykodisc, 1986; formed Planet Drum ensemble with Mickey Hart, Flora Purim, and others, released self-titled LP, 1991.

Awards: Grammy Award, Best World Music Album (with Mickey Hart) for Planet Drum, 1991.

Gave Drumming Seminars

Olatunji continued to release records on the Columbia label for a few years in the 1960s, but he still struggled financially. He even thought about moving back to Nigeria at one point. But his influence in the counter-culture deepened, heightened by a new interest in traditional drumming as a path to spiritual self-awareness, and he found extra work teaching at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. He also taught at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. "Drums are for communication, for socialization and, most importantly, for healing," he explained to Austin American-Statesman journalist Michael Point. In the 1980s he gave more than 2,000 performances across American college campuses and abroad as well. His links to Morehouse helped revive his career in 1986, when fellow alumnus Bill Lee introduced him to his son, a young filmmaker named Spike, who hired Olatunji to score part of his groundbreaking 1986 feature-film debut, She's Gotta Have It.

That same year, the Rykodisc label signed Olatunji, and he began releasing records such as 1988's Drums of Passion: The Invocation. Another link to his past surfaced in the form of Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who had been a student at a Long Island school that Olatunji visited in the 1960s as part of his educational-outreach work with the Center for African Culture. Hart was fascinated by Olatunji's traditional drums, and in 1991 the pair teamed to form the ensemble Planet Drum. Bringing Brazilian vocalist Flora Purim and a host of other world musicians on board, they recorded an eponymous debut that won the Grammy Award for World Music in 1991.

Elder Statesman of World Music

Olatunji's last studio release was Love Drum Talk for the Chesky label in 1997. He continued to tour extensively, taking with him a group of dancers, musicians, and singers that performed under the name Drums of Passion. They sang in Yoruba and performed traditional West African dances in distinctive raffia costumes. One of his four children, daughter Modupe, was a member of the troupe, as were some of his seven grandchildren. He declared to the Star-Ledger 's Kanzler that he was still an ardent believer in the power of music, and that society was ignoring deeper issues that brought violence and misery to so many lives. "I want to put drums in the hands of young people instead of guns," he told the paper in 1999.

Olatunji was hospitalized because of his diabetes in 2001. He finished work on a new studio album, Healing Session, in 2003, just weeks before he died. The tribute to Olatunji in Sing Out! also mentioned the "rhythm is the soul of life" credo, and Dorsett remarked that "he was right long before most of us knew it."

Selected discography

Drums of Passion, Columbia, 1959; reissued, Sony, 2002.

Zungo!, Columbia, 1961.

More Drums of Passion, Columbia, 1966.

Drums of Passion: The Invocation, Rykodisc, 1988.

Drums of Passion: The Beat, Rykodisc, 1989.

(With Mickey Hart) Planet Drum, Rykodisc, 1991.

Drums of Passion: Celebrate Freedom, Justice & Peace, Rykodisc, 1993.

Love Drum Talk, Chesky, 1997.

Healing Session, Narada, 2003.



Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 36, Gale, 2002.


Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 24, 1999, p. E10.

Austin American-Statesman, February 10, 1996, p. E11.

Guardian (London, England), April 11, 2003, p. 29.

Houston Chronicle, April 22, 1996, p. 1.

New York Times, April 9, 2003, p. D8.

Sing Out!, Summer 2003, p. 219.

Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), June 18, 1999, p. 41.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 5, 1998, p. E1.

Times (London, England), April 12, 2003, p. 43.

Carol Brennan

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