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Babatunde Olatunji


Born in the village of Ajido, Nigeria, a member of the Yoruba people, Olatunji was introduced to traditional African music at an early age. He read in Reader's Digest magazine about the Rotary International Foundation's scholarship programme, and applied for it. He came to the United States of America on the Rotary scholarship in 1950 and was educated at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.

After graduating from Morehouse, Olatunji went on to New York University to study public administration. There, he started a small percussion group to earn money on the side while he continued his studies. He won a following among jazz musicians, notably creating a strong relationship with John Coltrane and Columbia Records A&R man John Hammond signed him to the Columbia label in 1957.

In 1959, long before Americans knew about Afropop or therapeutic drumming, Olatunji recorded Drums of Passion , probably the first African LP recorded in a modern studio, and the first one many American fans of African music ever owned.
Interestingly, when Olatunji came to study at Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1950, he did not aspire to a profession in music. He had grown up the son of a village fisherman, steeped in music, but aimed at a more viable profession. Both there, and in New York where he attended graduate school in Public Administration starting in 1954, Olatunji saw the cultural divides between black and white Americans and between all Americans and Africans, and he decided that music, in particular drumming, could go a long way toward bringing people together. This insight caused him to reconsider traditional African music, particularly the Yoruba drumming he grew up with. He began to perform this music with greater and greater seriousness. Professionally minded Nigerians must have been puzzled to see this gifted young man choosing the low-status profession of a drummer. But Olatunji persued his vision. Not only did he become an accomplished percussionist and arranger, but he went on to teach and inspire generations of American musicians, many of whom have devoted their careers to African music.

Columbia Records producer John Hammond heard Olatunji performing at Radio City Music Hall with a 66-piece orchestra in 1957, and was impressed. This meeting led directly to the recording of Drums of Passion . It was a landmark and a triumph, but the road beyond has not been easy. While an ever growing circle of people have opened their hearts and minds to traditional African music, America's powerful institutions have mostly failed to make good on the promise of that remarkable moment. Between the time Olatunji's contract with Columbia expired in 1965, and the time he was picked up by Rykodisc over 20 years later, he didn't even have a record company.

Still, Olatunji continued to perform with his group, Drums of Passion, to teach and inspire, and to collaborate, including with Spike Lee on the film "She's Gotta Have it." Olatunji's students and followers include a host of jazz pop musicians. Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who credits Olatunji with introducing him to the talking drum, helped to introduce Olatunji to a new audience through the Planet Drum project. In the 1980s and 90s, Olatunji became a New Age cultural figure, awakening people all over the world to the transformational powers of drumming.

In concert and in the studio, Olatunji favors the big sound, often using 20 or more singers, percussionists, and dancers. His two Rykodisc release 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.

For the past thirty years, Olatunji has worked out of the Olatunji Center of African Culture in Harlem. Using an ever-changing stable of young musicians, he performs and teaches all over the world. In 1986, Olatunji received the Liberty Award from the Mayor of New York for his profound impact on cultural exchange between Africa and America. Olatunji's biography, "The Beat of my Drum," is published by Temple University Press. In the fall of 2001, Olatunji spent some time at New England Deaconess Hospital in Boston, where he was being treated for diabetes. Afropop Worldwide wishes him a speedy return to health.

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