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Babatunde Olatunji: Rhythmical Evangelist

28th Oct 2014

Babatunde Olatunji is responsible for bringing African music to prominence in Western culture. He has collaborated with a wide variety of well-known figures including musicians like Carlos Santana and social activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. He has performed on the Grammy Award winning album Planet Drum and is a Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame inductee. Olatunji saw the power that a drum had over the personal spirit and he believed in developing a community of non-professional drummers to connect society. Olatunji was born in Nigeria of the Yoruba people.

As a child he would go along with his aunt to hear the drums made from hollowed trees and covered with goatskins. The Yoruba drummers celebrated every occasion and they evoked the hopes and dreams of their people. Those lasting impressions would become the spirit of his adulthood that he carried with him when he ventured to the United States to study at Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1950 and later New York University where he studied Public Administration.

Baba, as he was affectionately known, had aspirations of becoming a success on the world stage and had little interest in becoming a professional performer. He came to America at a time where the divide in its own culture echoed the cultural divide across the globe. He saw the conflict first hand when he was not allowed to perform with the Morehouse Glee Club. This led him to begin traveling with Martin Luther King, Jr. and participate in his rallies including the March on Washington.

During this time of activism he quickly learned that the power drumming was able to bridge social rift and tear down walls of division. A rather poignant example was on the occasion when Baba was asked to perform in front of the United Nation’s General Assembly. During the performance, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev removed his shoes and danced along. He would use his influence to teach a wide range of organizations about drumming and its positive effects.

While Olatunji had no direct interest in performing professionally, he found that it helped fund his other efforts. Over the years he performed with many noted musicians including John Coltrane, Carlos Santana, Airto Moreira, Quincy Jones, and Stevie Wonder.

Baba has also had a lasting influence on western music and particularly Jazz. In 1959, Olatunji released his own album, Drums of Passion. This introduced American audiences to the polyrhythms of his native Nigeria. It is considered one of the first ‘World Music’ albums.

Before his death in 2003, Babatunde Olatunji had spent his entire life bringing the rhythm of the drums to everyday people. He believed that the spiritual power of the drum was so primary that he wanted “a drum in every household.” Babatunde Olatunji…educator, social activist, and drummer.