Babatunde Olatunji - African Drums (1927-2003)
Before there was world beat music, before there was Afropop or any of the other genres of African music marketed to Western audiences, there was Babatunde Olatunji. Olatunji's 1959 “Drums of Passion” album may have been the first African music release recorded in a modern U.S. studio. That album and its successor “Zungo!” proved extremely influential in the world of progressive 1960s jazz, helping to introduce saxophonist John Coltrane and other jazz players to African music. Olatunji himself made the United States his home and became a durable and enthusiastic ambassador of West African culture
A member of the Yoruba ethnic group, Olatunji was born in 1927 in the Nigerian village of Ajido, about forty miles from the capital of Lagos. His father was a fisherman. Traditional Yoruba drumming accompanied many of the events of village life, and Olatunji was taken by his great-aunt to hear drum ceremonies. The drummers celebrated every occasion, proclaimed the coming of local politicians, evoked the dreams and aspirations of their people. The drumbeat of his childhood became the life blood of his adult experience as Olatunji grew and traveled throughout the world popularizing the music of his Yoruban heritage.
While still in Africa in the late '40s, the ever resourceful Olatunji read about the Rotary International Foundation scholarships offered to youths from war-affected countries. By 1950, Olatunji and his cousin were each awarded a scholarship and were on their way to America to attend school in Atlanta, Georgia. Olatunji came to the U.S. determined to succeed in the international arena, at the time he had no aspirations to be a musician.
In 1954, after graduating from Atlanta's Moorehouse College with a degree in Diplomacy, Olatunji moved to New York to begin a Political Science postgraduate program in Public Administration at New York University. Throughout his American education he had a unique perspective on the cultural divides between black and white Americans. Early on he realized that music, drumming in particular, had the ability to break down the long-established cultural divisions within the "Melting Pot" that America was thought to be in those days. To cover his expenses he started a small drumming and dance group. Recognizing the influence of African polyrhythms in jazz, some of Olatunji's earliest fans were the jazz greats of the time; men like John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, Clark Terry, George Duvivier, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, and Dance luminary Alvin Ailey; not to mention the legendary producer John Hammond who produced Olatunji's first album. Even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., (also a Moorehouse graduate) invited Olatunji to tour with him.