Thirty-two years ago, African music made a huge dent into the Western market. Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji's ensemble heard on Drums of Passion not only was released on a major label but became a top 10 record in America. Though it was many decades this occurred before the 'world music' explosion, it shouldn't have been that much of a surprise that this comparatively minimal music would make such an impact in the States. Even at that time, folklorists and historians had recognized the enormous debt that homegrown styles like blues and jazz owed to African music and its rhythms.
Olatunji was much more than a gifted, groundbreaking artist. By the time that his music was making the charts, he was also making the lecture circuit, going around colleges to talk about African culture. He also decided to create his own arts center to promote the work of other musicians and teach young people about music. His work schedule was punishing but Olatunji was tireless: from 1968 to 1982, he taught at Roxbury (Massachusetts) two days a week then teaching two days a week a class at Kent State and then traveling back to New York for the weekends to teach at his own school.
His quest has spanned to today and found him many musicians as supporters (and collaborators) of his work, including John Coltrane, Carlos Santana, Taj Mahal and the Grateful Dead. His latest album, Love Drum Talk (on Chesky, 1997) earned him a Grammy nomination and a new generation of admirers. I met Olatunji in April 1999 to talk about the span of his career.
Baba passed away in California on April 6th at the age of 76 from diabetes. He will be missed and he will be remembered.