Babatunde Olatunji - Biography
Babatunde Olatunji is one of the giants of 20th Century African music - a Nigerian Master drummer, the Godfather of World Beat, an International Ambassador of Percussion, best selling recording artist, founder of the Planet Drum Troupe (members also include Mickey Hart, Zukir Hussain, Airto Moreira and other masters of global rhythm), and head of the Olatunji Center for African Culture, a school that has turned out five generations of singers, dancers, drummers, healers and scholars who have helped the master in his self-appointed task of spreading the rhythmic Gospel of West African music all over the world. He released less than a dozen albums in his life, but their impact cannot be underestimated. When Olatunji died in 2003, he left behind a body of work that will stand the test of time.
Olatunji was born in a small village in Nigeria and came to the United States in 1950 to study at the all-male African-American Morehouse College in Atlanta, but even at an all black college, Tarzan movie myths about Africa were the rule, not the exception. “They asked me if Africans lived in trees, if there were cities in Africa,” Olatunji told Drum magazine in 1999. “When I told them they came from Africa, they didn’t want to hear it.”
Olatunji began holding jam sessions in his room, playing African music, spinning folk tales and talking about the history and politics of Nigeria and West Africa. When he joined the school jazz band “they were surprised I knew how to keep the beat. That led me to put on my own performance of African music. After I graduated, I moved to New York and worked in a ballpoint pen factory while I tried to get the money together to do the research for my doctorate. There were no scholarships for Africans then, so I started teaching African music and dance to maintain my sanity.”
Olatunji formed a troupe of singers, dancers and drummers and hit the jazz clubs. His raw, percussion driven music touched a nerve and led to a gig on the Ed Sullivan Show, then to a recording deal with Columbia Records. John Hammond, Olatunji’s A&R rep, insisted that the band maintain creative control, and the rest, as they say, is history. Drums of Passion (1959 Columbia) stayed on the pop charts for two years and went Gold. Recorded in several short sessions, with four drummers - Olatunji, Baba Hawthorne Bey, Montigo Joe, Taiwo Duval - and no overdubbing, Drums of Passion still sounds vital today. “Playing drums creates a place of peace and empowerment,” Olatunji said. “It’s like a church; people forget the role of church is to bring people together to talk about your week and your lives, and form community. All that happens before the Minster ever comes and says: ‘Sing Hymn 546.’ It’s the ritual that happens before the ritual, which is what we did when we recorded Drums of Passion. We wore our robes and lit incense and created a ceremonial space before we started playing.”
After four more sessions for Columbia including Zungo! (1961) a groundbreaking jazz fusion session that featured Yusef Lateef, Clark Terry and Ray Barretto, High Life (1963), the first Afropop album to get wide release in the US, and More Drums of Passion (1966) Olatunji left Columbia, another victim of the short-sightedness of the American music business.
Although Olatunji’s music was under-recorded, his hectic concert schedule and the legions of students that graduated from his Center for African Culture in Harlem, had an immense influence on several generations of hand drummers. In 1985, Micky Hart, Grateful Dead drummer and former Olatunji student, invited his old teacher to perform in the opening of the Dead’s New Year’s Eve concert in Oakland, CA. This led to a contract with the short-lived San Francisco jazz label Blue Heron, where Olatunji recorded Drums of Passion: The Invocation a collection of traditional Yoruba songs and ceremonial rhythms, featuring Carlos Santana’s soulful guitar work. When Hart moved over to Rykodisc, the label reissued The Invocation as well as Drums of Passion: The Beat (1989 Ryko World).
In 1991, Olatunji and Hart started the percussion supergroup Planet Drum with Zakir Hussain, Giovanni Hidalgo, Airto Moreira and Sikiru Adepoju. Their first album, Planet Drum (1991 Ryko World) won the first ever World Music Grammy and introduced Olatunji to another generation of drummers and fans. Olatunji toured to support the album and maintained an active teaching schedule. In the early 90's he recorded two albums on his own label, Babatunde Olatunji, Healing Rhythms, Songs and Chants (1995 Olatunji Music) and Drums of Passion: Celebrate Freedom, Justice & Peace (1993 Olatunji Music). In 1997 the audiophile label, Chesky, signed him and the resulting album, Love Drum Talk (1997), was another volley of traditional Yoruba rhythms, powerful singing and overwhelming drum beats. It received rave reviews as well as a Grammy nomination.
In the late 90's, Olatunji began giving drumming and healing workshops at New Age centers like Esalen Institute in California and the Kripalu Yoga Retreat Center in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. “The rituals and healing circles we’re doing now, are an extension of the work I’ve always been doing,” Olatunji said, a few years before he died. “I was originally captivated by the power of the drums I heard all around me in my village of Ajido. When I heard the sound of the mother drum - this is a drum so big it can make the house shake all around you - and saw the trance state achieved by drummers and dancers, I wanted to take part in the mystical unity I saw them invoking. I wondered ‘How can the drum be so powerful? Where do these movements come from? How do people become involved to the point that they loose themselves and go into possession?’ I noticed the combination of drumming and singing got people acting as if they were one; it unified people, regardless of age or profession. When I asked the drummers how they did it, they invited me to step forward to the drum and try to play. I extend that same invitation to my listeners today. This invitation forms a link to my past, to my first musical experiences, and will build a bridge to the future.”
Olatunji died due to complications of diabetes in April of 2003. There have been two excellent posthumous releases since - Healing Session (2003 Narada), included the kind of trance-inducing music that first attracted Olatunji to drumming as a boy and the kind of music he was playing at the end of his life; Circle of Drums (Chesky 2005) was a more experimental, improvisational outing and featured Serbian drummer Muruga Booker and Planet Drum associate Sikiru Adepoju.