1927 – 2003
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“Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. And today? Today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present”. —Babatunde Olatunji
On April 6, 2003, only one day before his 76th birthday, one of the most important figures in popular music of the later half of the 20th century passed away surrounded physically by family and friends – and surrounded spiritually by the love and prayers of thousands of people around the world who also counted him among their family. Babatunde Olatunji died Sunday morning, April 6, 2003 just ten days after being admitted to Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital, of complications due to his long struggle with the effects of Diabetes. Olatunji had a profound impact on everyone who knew him and everyone who had been touched by his love for the drum and the African culture that nurtured that love. Babatunde Olatunji was born 1927 in the small village of Ajido, Nigeria, about forty miles from Lagos, the capital of the country. This small fishing and trading town amplified the ebb and flow of the seasons through the sounds of drumming that echoed through the nights. As a child, Olatunji accompanied his great aunt Tanyin to hear the drums – hollowed out from trees and covered with the skin of goats – punctuate the lives of his people. The drummers celebrated every occasion, proclaimed the coming of local politicians, evoked the dreams and aspirations of their people. The drumbeat of his childhood became the life blood of his adult experience as Olatunji grew and traveled throughout the world popularizing the music of his Yoruban heritage. While still in Africa in the late ’40s, the ever resourceful Olatunji read in Reader’s Digest about the Rotary International Foundation scholarships offered to youths from war-affected countries. By 1950, Olatunji and his cousin were each awarded a scholarship and were on their way to America to attend school in Atlanta, Georgia. Olatunji came to the U.S. determined to succeed in the international arena, at the time he had no aspirations to be a musician. In 1954, after graduating from Atlanta’s Moorehouse College with a degree in Diplomacy, Olatunji moved to New York to begin a Political Science postgraduate program in Public Administration at New York University. Throughout his American education he had a unique perspective on the cultural divides between black and white Americans. Early on he realized that music, drumming in particular, had the ability to break down the long-established cultural divisions within the “Melting Pot” that America was thought to be in those days. These sorts of insights were the motivating factor that brought Olatunji to begin performing the drumming of his Yoruba ancestors.
To cover his expenses he started a small drumming and dance group. Recognizing the influence of African polyrhythms in jazz, some of Olatunji’s earliest fans were the jazz greats of the time; men like John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, Clark Terry, George Duvivier, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Taj Mahal, Pete Seeger, Bill Lee (Spike Lee’s father), and Dance luminary Alvin Ailey; not to mention the legendary noted Columbia A&R man John Hammond who produced Olatunji’s first album. Even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., (also a Moorehouse graduate) invited Olatunji to tour with him. In 1957 when Columbia Records producer John Hammond heard Olatunji performing at Radio City Music Hall with a 66-piece orchestra, he was so impressed that this fortuitous meeting led directly to the recording of Drums of Passion. Released in 1959 by Columbia Records, Olatunji’s first album became an unprecedented, worldwide smash hit. It was the first album to bring genuine African music to Western ears, and it went on to sell over five million copies and is still a popular recording. In 1964 Olatunji performed at the African Pavilion at the New York World Fair where he was able to raise enough money to open the Olatunji Center for African Culture (OCAC) in Harlem, offering classes in African dance, music, language, folklore, and history. During this period Baba’s students included people like Gordy Ryan, Leon Mobley, Arthur Hull, Yao Tamakloe, Anindo Abukusta – musicians who both performed with him in his band and who today continue on to spread Baba’s love for the drum all over the world.
The National Endowment of the Arts help to fund Olatuni’s OCAC teacher and student training programs which went to all over the schools in the New York tri-state area, all the way to Long Island. Mickey Hart first encountered Olatunji in one of those educational African programs. In his classes Baba always asked the students to come and beat on the drums and he first recognized Mickey’s talent over 25 years ago in one of those programs.
Olatunji’s impact on the drumming culture around the world is unprecedented. He has been a member of the faculties at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California and the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York for over 15 years. He played with Mickey Hart, the Grateful Dead, Airto Moreira, and Carlos Santana on his 1986 recording Drums of Passion: The Beat.
“Rhythm is the soul of life. The whole universe revolves in rhythm. Everything and every human action revolves in rhythm.” — Babatunde Olatunji
Both in concert and in the studio, Olatunji opted for a big sound, often using 20 or more singers, percussionists, and dancers. His two Rykodisc releases produced by Mickey Hart — Drums of Passion: The Beat (1989) and Drums of Passion: The Invocation (1988) — show both his willingness to experiment and find common ground with American musicians, and his devotion to ancient African traditions.
In 1991 he and Hart joined forces on Planet Drum, a group that toured around the country and later recorded an album that won a Grammy Award. His composition “Jingo Lo Ba” has become a timeless anthem and a signature song for the rock group Santana. He has written scores for Broadway and Hollywood productions, including the music for She’s Gotta Have It, a film by Spike Lee. In 1997, Chesky Records released Love Drum Talk, which went on to be nominated for the 1998 Grammy for Best World Music Album.
Baba was the single most important contributor to the popularization of African hand drumming in the United States. Baba created the popular Gun-Dun, Go-Do, Pa-Ta method of learning drum patterns in which these spoken sounds were able to help recall the sounds made on most hand drums — with the Gun-Dun denoting the bass notes played with right and left hands; the Go-Do denoting the open tones; and the Pa-Ta denoting the slaps. This simple method revolutionized the learning rate for thousands of hand drum students in the West. He is also well-known for popularizing the popular Liberian rhythm Fanga (a song of welcome to which he added words), which was often played for him by his students when he would enter a workshop.
For the few years before his death Olatunji made his home at Esalen Institute along the wild Big Sur coastline in California, where he continued to teach while battling the ravages of Diabetes. Olatunji traveled throughout the world for almost half a century giving percussion workshops spreading his love of the drum, song, music, and African culture inspiring generations of American musicians, many of whom have devoted their careers to African music and who are, in turn, spreading Baba’s message to their students.
“The spirit of the drum is something that you feel but cannot put your hands on, It does something to you from the inside out . . . It hits people in so many different ways. But the feeling is one that is satisfying and joyful. It is a feeling that makes you say to yourself, ‘ I’m glad to be alive today! I’m glad to be part of this world!” —Babatunde Olatunji
(This article was originally published in The Beat Magazine, May 2003)
For more information on this influential percussionist also look at:
Drums of Passion
and of course you are now at Olatunji’s Page in The African Music Encyclopedia.
Or read an interesting between cross-country conversation between Babatunde Olatunji and Arthur Hull.
Sign Baba’s memorial guestbook
[ About the author: Janet Planet is a writer and drummer and one of many seeds planted by Babatunde Olatunji during his lifetime. You can reach her at The African Music Encyclopedia or at [email protected] ]
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Copyright © 1995-2003 Janet Planet [email protected]
The African Music Encyclopedia’s appreciation ad in the program for Baba’s Tribute in Middletown, New York 2002
Many thanks to Craig Norton, who took the following photos at the memorial service for Baba in New York City.