[Date Prev][Date Next]   [Thread Prev][Thread Next]   [Date Index][Thread Index][Author Index]

Re: Babatunde Olatunji passes on


April 9, 2OO3
Babatunde Olatunji, Nigerian Drummer, Dies at 76

Babatunde Olatunji, the Nigerian drummer, bandleader and teacher who was a
tireless ambassador for African music and culture in the United States, 
on Sunday in Salinas, Calif. He was 76 and lived at the Esalen Institute in
Big Sur, Calif.

The cause was complications of advanced diabetes, said his daughter Modupe
Olantunji Anuku.

Mr. Olatunji's 1959 album, "Drums of Passion," was the first album of
African drumming recorded in stereo in an American studio, and it 
a generation to the power and intricacy of African music. While field
recordings of African drumming had been available, "Drums of Passion"
reached a mass public with its vivid sound and exotic song titles like
"Primitive Fire."

Mr. Olatunji was born and reared in Ajido, a fishing and trading village
pervaded by Yoruba culture, and he made it his lifework to bring village
memories to audiences everywhere. His band of drummers, singers and dancers
evoked both the village's music and its masquerades, with outsize figures
dancing in elaborate raffia costumes. His credo was: "Rhythm is the soul of
life. The whole universe revolves in rhythm. Everything and every human
action revolves in rhythm."

In 195O Mr. Olatunji received a scholarship to attend Morehouse College in
Atlanta. He was planning to become a diplomat. He studied public
administration at New York University, where he formed an African-style
ensemble that eventually turned into his full-time occupation.

The group performed at concerts and at civil rights rallies led by the Rev.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After the group appeared with an orchestra at
Radio City Music Hall, Mr. Olatunji was signed to Columbia Records. Mr.
Olatunji secured foundation grants to tour schools. Among the students who
were impressed by his performances - dressed in African robes and playing
hand-hewn goat-hide drums - was Mickey Hart, who would go on to join the
Grateful Dead and later recharge Mr. Olatunji's career.

"Drums of Passion" made Mr. Olatunji the most visible African musician in
the United States. Bob Dylan cited him alongside King and Willie Mays in "I
Shall Be Free" in 1963.

"Drums of Passion" was hugely influential among musicians, helping to spark
a wave of African-jazz fusions in the early 196O's. "Jin-Go-Lo-Ba," from
"Drums of Passion," was remade as "Jingo" to become the first single by
Santana in 1969. Mr. Olatunji mixed African music and jazz on his albums 
Columbia in the 196O's. He was a featured performer at the African Pavilion
of the 1964 New York World's Fair. With support from John Coltrane, he
established the Olatunji Center for African Culture in Harlem, which 
music and dance lessons to children until 1988.

After his Columbia contract ended in 1965, Mr. Olatunji continued to
perform, record and teach. Mr. Hart invited him to open for the Grateful
Dead's New Year's Eve show in Oakland, Calif., in 1985, introducing his
music to a new audience. Mr. Hart also persuaded his label, Rykodisc, to
rerelease two independently recorded 198O's albums by Mr. Olatunji: "Drums
of Passion: The Beat" (1986), which included guest appearances by the
guitarist Carlos Santana, and "Drums of Passion: The Invocation" (1988),
featuring Yoruba chants. Mr. Olatunji recorded and toured during the 199O's
as a member of Mr. Hart's world-beat supergroup, Planet Drum, and made an
instructional videotape, "African Drumming," released in 1996. He moved to
Washington and then to Big Sur, where he became an artist in residence at

Mr. Olatunji also continued to lead his own group, Drums of Passion, which
included students and family members: his daughter Modupe and his seven

He is also survived by his wife, Amy Bush Olatunji, from whom he is
separated; two sons, Omotola Olatunji, of Brooklyn, and Niyi Esubiyi, of
Belle Meade, N.J.; another daughter, Folasade Olatunji Olusekun of Boston;
and a brother, Dr. Akinsola Akiwowo, of Alexandria, Va.

Mr. Olatunji's most recent album, "Love Drum Talk" (Chesky) was released in
1997 and was nominated for a Grammy Award. Columbia reissued an expanded
version of the original "Drums of Passion" last year, and Mr. Olatunji
completed a new album earlier this year.

<< >> << >> << >> << >> << >>

Copyright 2OO3 The New York Times Company

<< >> << >> << >> << >> << >>