Nigerian musician and activist Babatunde Olatunji has been recognized as the father of African drumming in western music culture. Through his 1959 album ‘Drums of Passion’, Olatunji brought the sounds of traditional African music to western culture for the first time. In doing so, he helped bridge a great divide between western and African cultures. In this analysis, I will address the importance of Olatunji’s music and discuss how his influence changed the course of western music.
Michael Babatunde Olatunji was born in 1927 in Ajido, Nigeria, a small village known for its fishing, festivals and drumming. Olatunji grew up studying drums and singing from the great musicians of his village. The traditional music of this region serves many purposes in society. A typical drum performance might take place at a funeral, and is always accompanied by dance. Olatunji did not set out with the goal of being a musician though. Rather, he wanted to be a diplomat and represent the people of his country in the United States. His dream became reality in 1950 when he was awarded a Rotary International Scholarship to study diplomacy at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. While in school, he realized that most of his colleagues had no idea about his native land. He began inviting his colleagues over to share stories of Africa, his upbringing, and his music. The music of his culture lived deep inside of him, and as he began to showcase it in informal settings, a demand quickly arose for him to continue to share this music.
After graduating from Morehouse, Olatunji moved to New York to study at NYU in pursuit of a graduate education in public administration. Inspired by the incredible music scene surrounding him, he started his own drum and dance group in the city. This led to the release of his debut album Drums of Passion. From this release, Olatunji gained international recognition and began a new career of performing and teaching across the states. Massive arenas and concert halls would sell out with excited fans ready to sing along and dance to his rhythms. Olatunji made a significant impact on the jazz community and collaborated with many notable musicians including Clark Terry, Horace Silver and John Coltrane amongst many others. A collaboration that made a profound impact on me personally was his drumming on Max Roach’s 1960 album We Insist!, a suite of five powerful civil rights related compositions.
Olatunji was a masterful educator on his instrument. He taught of the drum as an extension of the human voice. Just as you speak, one must play the drum with strength and confidence. “I am the drum, you are the drum, and we are the drum. Because the whole world revolves in rhythm, and rhythm is the soul of life, for everything that we do in life is in rhythm.” (Olatunji, African drumming (video), 1993). The above quote well represents Olatunji’s philosophy that everybody has the ability to play drums, and that rhythm exists within all of us. He believed that a musician must be mentally and physically prepared to play by being in the upmost relaxed state. Through his 1964 performance at the New York World Fair and with the help of his dear friend John Coltrane, Olatunji raised enough money to open his own Olatunji Center for African Culture in Harlem, NY. The school still exists today, and offers classes in African language, history, music and dance. It was here that Coltrane’s last live recording took place before he passed months later. Though Olatunji’s focus transitioned primarily to teaching in his later years, his drive to spread music never grew slow. He collaborated extensively with Carlos Santana, the Grateful Dead in the late 80’s and early 90’s. He eventually drummer Mickey Hart’s percussion project Planet Drum which would go on to win a Grammy. Olatunji spent the last few years of his life teaching and relaxing on the Big Sur coastline of California where he lost his life to diabetes in 2003.
As a drummer, percussionist and composer with interests in improvisational music, I have always had a great appreciation for world music, particularly from the regions of West Africa. After beginning my graduate studies at CalArts and joining Sulley Imoro and his Aza African Ensemble, my appreciation for West African music has quickly grown into a deep love the music and cultures of this region. From the moment I stepped into the ensemble, I could feel a true sense of family. The interlocking percussion with chant and dance in these societies represents much more than just a magnificent art form, but a language and a celebration of life. It is impossible to know how African music would have been perceived in America without the influence of Babatunde Olatunji, or if western music students such as myself would have had the opportunity to study this music at all. I am grateful for Babatunde’s incredible legacy, and I look forward to further spreading his message of peace through music.
Dietz, B. W.; Olatunji, B.; Powers, R. M.; Nicholas M. England Collection. Musical
Instruments of Africa : Their Nature, Use, and Place in the Life of a Deeply Musical People; John Day: New York, 1965.
Babatunde Olatunji: African Drumming (video), Interworld Music (1993) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o-MnJzpLyWA