Babatunde Olatunji (April 7, 1927 – April 6, 2003) was a Nigerian drummer, educator, social activist and recording artist.
Olatunji was born in the village of Ajido
, a small town near Badagry
, Lagos State
, in southwestern 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 program, and applied for it. He came to the United States of America
Olatunji received a Rotary scholarship in 1950 and was educated at Morehouse College
in Atlanta, Georgia
. After graduating from Morehouse, he 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.
Olatunji won a following among jazz
musicians, notably creating a strong relationship with John Coltrane
and Columbia Records A&R
man John Hammond
who signed him to the Columbia label in 1957. With Coltrane's help, he founded the Olatunji Center for African Culture in Harlem
. This was the site of Coltrane's final performance.
In 1959 Olatunji released his first of six records on the Columbia label, called Drums of Passion. In 1969, Carlos Santana had a major hit with his cover version of this first album's "Jin-go-lo-ba," which Santana recorded on his debut album, Santana, as "Jingo." Olatunji favoured a big percussion sound, and his records typically featured more than 20 players, unusual for a percussion based ensemble. Drums of Passion became a major hit and remains in print; it introduced many Americans to world music. Drums of Passion also served as the band's name. Notable band members included; Clark Terry, Bill Lee, Horace Silver, Yusef Lateef, Sikiru Adepoju and Charles Lloyd, among others.
Olatunji's subsequent recordings include Drums of Passion: The Invocation (1988), Drums of Passion: The Beat (1989) (which included Airto Moreira and Carlos Santana), Love Drum Talk (1997), Circle of Drums (2005) (originally titled Cosmic Rhythm Vibrations, with Muruga Booker and Sikiru Adepoju), and Olatunji Live at Starwood (2003 – recorded at the 1997 Starwood Festival ) with guest Halim El-Dabh. He also contributed to "Peace Is The World Smiling: A Peace Anthology For Families" on the Music For Little People label (1989).
Olatunji recorded with many other prominent musicians, including Cannonball Adderley (on his African Waltz album), Horace Silver, Quincy Jones, Pee Wee Ellis, Stevie Wonder, Randy Weston, and with Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln on the pivotal Freedom Now Suite aka We Insist, and with Grateful Dead member Mickey Hart on his Grammy winning Planet Drum projects. He is also mentioned in the lyrics of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Free" as recorded on the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.
Film and theatre
Olatunji composed music for the Broadway
theatrical and Hollywood
film productions of Raisin in the Sun
. He assisted Bill Lee
with the music for his son Spike Lee
's hit film She's Gotta Have It
Olatunji was known for making an impassioned speech for social justice before performing in front of a live audience. His progressive
political beliefs are outlined in The Beat Of My Drum: An Autobiography
, with a foreword by Joan Baez
, (Temple University
Press, 2005). He toured the American south with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr
and joined King in the march on Washington
. When he performed before the United Nations
General Assembly, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev
took off his shoes and danced. Later, he was one of the first outside performers to perform in Prague
at Václav Havel
's request. On July 21
, he appeared at the Amandla Festival
along with Bob Marley
, Dick Gregory
, Patti LaBelle
and Eddie Palmieri
, amongst others.
Olatunji was also a music educator, and invented a method of teaching and recording drum patterns which he called the "Gun-Dun, Go-Do, Pa-Ta" method after the different sounds made on the drum.
Olatunji taught drum and dance workshops year-round starting in the late 1950s. Over the years he presented workshops nationally and internationally at too many colleges, universities, civic, cultural and governmental organizations to list here.
He co-wrote, Musical Instruments of Africa: Their Nature, Use and Place in the Life of a Deeply Musical People with Betty Warner-Dietz (John Day Company, 1965). He taught a summer drumming and African dance course with his wife, at the Omega institute in Rhinebeck, NY (Omega Institute) for many summers during Family week. He also taught at the Esalen Institute in California from 1985 until shortly before his death from diabetes in 2003, on the day before his 76th birthday.
- Circle of Drums (2005, Chesky)
- Healing Session (2003, Narada)
- Olatunji Live at Starwood (2003) Recorded Live at the Starwood Festival 1997
- Drums of Passion [Expanded] (2002)
- Love Drum Talk (1997, Chesky)
- Drums of Passion and More (1994, Bear Family) Box Set
- Babatunde Olatunji, Healing Rhythms, Songs and Chants (1995, Olatunji Music)
- Drums of Passion: Celebrate Freedom, Justice & Peace (1993, Olatunji Music)
- Drums of Passion: The Beat (1989, Rykodisc)
- Drums of Passion: The Invocation (1988, Rykodisc)
- Soul Makossa (1973, Paramount) (Single/EP)
- Dance to the Beat of My Drum (1986, Bellaphon)
- Flaming Drums (1962, Columbia Records CS8666)
- Zungo! (1961)
- Drums of Passion (1959)
- Olatunji Live at Starwood [DVD] (2005, ACE) Recorded Live at the Starwood Festival 1997
- African Drumming [Instructional video] (2004, Interworld)
- Love Drum Talk [Video] (1998, CHE, TMS, Chesky)
- 2000: Afeni Shakur Discusses "The Rose That Grew from Concrete, Vol. 1"
- 2000: Club Africa, Vol. 2: Hard African Funk, Afro-Jazz, & Original Afro-Beat
- 2000: The Rose That Grew from Concrete
- 1998: Mondo Beat: Masters of Percussion
- 1998: New Visions: World Rhythms
- 1998: Selections from Mondo Beat
- 1995: The Big Bang
- 1994: The Best of Both Worlds: Rykodisc/Hannibal World Music Sampler
- 1994: The Big Bang: In the Beginning Was a Drum
- 1991: Around the World for a Song (Rykodisc)
- 1991: Planet Drum – Mickey Hart (Rykodisc)
- 1990: At the Edge – Mickey Hart (Rykodisc)
- Musical Instruments of Africa: Their Nature, Use and Place in the Life of a Deeply Musical People (1965) with Betty Warner-Dietz. John Day Company OCLC: 592096
- The Beat Of My Drum: An Autobiography (2005) (with a foreword by Joan Baez). Temple University Press ISBN 1592133541, ISBN 978-1592133543
- Reference to Starwood Festival appearance in poet Ray McNiece bio