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Babatunde


I grew up in a village where music was a way of life. Everyday you wake up and you may be celebrating the birth of a child, the coming of age of a young man or woman, someone taking a giant step in life (getting married) or someone passing into the spirit world. All of this is celebrated with music and chants and dance. I would say that music covers all the vicissitudes of life. So you grow up as a child seeing all of this and being part of it. There's no way of escaping it. It's just like any young man here in America will wake up at any time during the summer and can grab a baseball bat or pick up a basketball and play around with it. It's one thing to know something about it but becoming Michael Jordan is another thing.
I grew up with that and my interests grew up with that. In retrospect, I remember very well that I was always on the side where the musicians were instead of where the audience was at all festivals. Every weekend there was a festival in the villages. You are just there and you are a part of it. But for me, I would always stand where the musicians, the drummers were. I remember that very well.

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.

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