Olatunji, Babatunde 1927–
Babatunde Olatunji 1927–
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. Olatunji’s 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 Olatunji’s 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 Reader’s 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 school’s 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 People’s 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 Olatunji’s commitment to music was a concert he gave at New York’s 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).
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 World’s Fair, 1964; opened Olatunji Center for African Culture, Harlem, Manhattan, NY, 1965; composed music for Spike Lee film She’s 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, weren’t 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 Olatunji’s financial condition. “I didn’t know anything about contracts,” he told the Washington Post, “so I put everything in the public domain. So I don’t 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 Fair’s African Pavilion in 1964, using the proceeds to open his own Olatunji Center for African Culture in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. Olatunji began offering workshops in African music, dance, and language, and it wasn’t 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 Olatunji’s 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 didn’t materialize—“Exxon doesn’t 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 Lee’s debut feature, She’s 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 Olatunji’s 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.”
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 1927–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/olatunji-babatunde-1927
"Olatunji, Babatunde 1927–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved February 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/olatunji-babatunde-1927
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Babatunde Olatunji, 1927–2003, Nigerian drummer, b. Ajido. Educated in the United States, he graduated from Atlanta's Morehouse College in 1954 and studied at New York Univ. A Yoruba, steeped in tribal culture, he established a group of expatriate African drummers, singers, and dancers with whom he performed and recorded. His first album, the 1959 worldwide best seller Drums of Passion, introduced the intricate, powerful art of African drumming and chanting to a Western audience and transformed Olatunji into America's best-known African musician. He influenced numerous jazz and pop musicians with his performances and teaching workshops. In 1985, Olatunji brought his rhythms to a new group of fans when he performed with the Grateful Dead, and during the 1990s he toured and recorded with the world-beat group Planet Drum.
"Olatunji, Babatunde." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/olatunji-babatunde
"Olatunji, Babatunde." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved February 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/olatunji-babatunde