Michael Babatunde Olatunji Biography

Nigerian drummer Michael Babatunde Olatunji (1927–2003), though less well known than other African musicians who have exported their traditions to the West, deserves recognition as a pioneer among them. His Drums of Passion album (1959) paved the way not only for a host of other releases of African music, but in many ways for the entire category of world music.

Drums of Passion , in the words of Olatunji's autobiography collaborator Robert Atkinson, "introduced hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of Americans to African drumming." And Olatunji's influence extended into other realms as well. His African drum ensembles were important adjuncts to the meetings and public events that shaped the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s. The long period of experimentation with African traditions on the part of jazz musicians can be traced back in many cases to their exposure to Olatunji's music. And the modern popularity of hand drumming and drum circles in the United States grew from Olatunji's educational activities.

Groomed for Chieftancy

Babatunde Olatunji grew up in a traditional Yoruba cultural setting in what was then British-ruled colonial Nigeria. He believed that he was born in 1927, in the coastal village of Ajido. His father was a successful fisherman who was about to ascend to the rank of village chief, and after his father's sudden death the family began to raise Olatunji with the idea that he would replace his father in that role. But Olatunji gravitated toward the music he heard every day in Yorubaland. "I heard the drum while I was in my mother's womb," he wrote in The Beat of My Drum . "I woke up every day to the beat of the drum. I grew up hearing the drummers heralding the dawn of each day in front of the chief's compound, serenading shoppers in the marketplace, playing at name-giving ceremonies."

Even when he was very young he would tag along with the area's master drummers and beg for lessons. "In my village there was always music and everyone would grab something to play," Olatunji wrote. "But I went beyond that…. The master drummers would all say, 'Are you here again?' And I would say, 'Yeah.' Those of us who became drummers were the ones who went beyond that common exposure and learned the craft." First the master drummers gave him a cowbell, whose simple rhythmic pattern forms the basis for Yoruba traditional percussion, and then he was allowed to handle some of the huge variety of Yoruba drums, each connected with a specific religious or social purpose, or with a deity in the Yoruba pantheon.

Olatunji came to realize that he did not want to be Ajido's chief. He wrote that, when he was 12 or 13, "I was saying to myself, 'I really don't want this kind of power, or to be the center of attention where I cannot express myself truly.'" Instead, Olatunji was sent to live with an uncle and aunt in the capital city of Lagos, and went to school there. He learned to speak English, and a new layer was added to his religious education by his uncle, a member of the African Methodist church and a devout individual whose observation of the Sabbath even prohibited cooking.

Lagos brought the musical sounds of the world to Olatunji's ears. He owned a shortwave radio on which he could pick up British Broadcasting Corporation programs featuring American big-band jazz and classical music. And he became fascinated with the idea of coming to America, a desire that intensified as he continued his education at the American-sponsored Baptist Academy in Lagos. Olatunji worked for two years in the port city of Sapele as a "vacancy officer," a government human resources administrator. But when he and a cousin heard about scholarships offered for college study in the United States by the Rotary Education Foundation, they decided to apply. They were accepted for study at historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta, and on April 27, 1950, a cargo ship on which they had booked passage docked in New Orleans.

Introduced Black Students to African Culture

Arriving in Georgia, Olatunji began a full experience of Southern segregation when he was told to take a black-only taxi. The idea of black consciousness was still mostly in the future as he began to interact with his classmates at More-house, who included Martin Luther King Jr. and future Atlanta mayor Maynard Jackson. "Don't you ever tell me I'm of African descent," Jackson told Olatunji, as the latter recalled in his autobiography. "I am a Negro. I am born in America." Some Morehouse students believed Africa was a place inhabited by beings like the fictional character Tarzan. Olatunji was planning to become a diplomat, but he added a second aim to his outlook. "I have a job to tell these people about the rich cultural heritage of Africa," he remembered deciding. "I better get on with this mission now."

Olatunji began giving lecture demonstrations at both black and white Atlanta churches, playing a small hand drum he had brought from Lagos and interspersing biblical quotations among his musical explanations. At Morehouse he organized a small group to play African music at school social gatherings, and as the pioneering studies of the African roots of black American culture began to filter through the African-American academic world, he began to find more receptive audiences. Elected president of More-house's student body, Olatunji graduated in 1954 and enrolled at New York University in a graduate program in public administration.

Trying to earn money on the side in order to make tuition payments, Olatunji organized a small African drum ensemble. He married Amy Bush, and the pair had two sons and two daughters. Olatunji eventually had to withdraw from his graduate program due to lack of funds, but music was steadily taking its place in his life. He began giving concerts, and his group played at civil rights rallies led by King and others. In 1958 he returned to Africa to attend the All African People's Conference organized by Ghanaian independence leader Kwame Nkrumah, who urged him to give up his ambitions to become a diplomat and instead devote himself to spreading African culture. That year Olatunji found a job playing drums in a Radio City Music Hall dance production called "African Fantasy." There he was spotted by Columbia label talent administrator John Hammond, who also discovered such performers as Billie Holiday and Bruce Springsteen.

Signed to Columbia, Olatunji released Drums of Passion in 1959. At first he used the name Michael Olatunji (he had previously used Michael Babatunde Olatunji as a Christianized form of his name), but later printings restored the name Babatunde Olatunji. The impact of the album, in Atkinson's words, "can hardly be overstated, yet much about it needs to be qualified." Drums of Passion was the first album of African drumming recorded in a modern studio. Previously, most recordings of African music had been made by scholars. The music on the album was not a pure representation of Olatunji's Yoruba traditions, although it did feature Nigerian rhythms. Instead it offered a hybrid music containing Ghanaian, Afro-Caribbean, and African-American elements. The musicians, except for Olatunji, were not African. Critics later accused Olatunji of presenting a watered-down version of African music, but Anthony C. Davis, writing in the Black Issues Book Review , argued that Olatunji succeeded in blending various traditions into "something new that represented the spread of African culture throughout the Diaspora."

Influenced Jazz and Rock Musicians

Olatunji recorded five albums for Columbia between 1959 and 1966, as jazz musicians flocked to his shows and began to incorporate African drumming into their own albums. He appeared on a 1960 album that marked a high point of the confluence between jazz and the civil rights movement: drummer Max Roach and playwright Oscar Brown Jr.'s We Insist: Freedom Now Suite . In 1961 he performed at the prestigious Village Gate club with jazz saxophonist John Coltrane and drummer Art Blakey. Another fan was rock musician Carlos Santana, who covered Olatunji's "Jin-Go-Lo-Ba" (from Drums of Passion ) in 1969, retitling it "Jingo." The piece was also remade in 2004 by English dance musician Fatboy Slim, this time under its original title.

In 1964 Olatunji performed at the African Pavilion of the New York World's Fair. He established the Olatunji Center for African Culture in New York's Harlem neighborhood, and wrote a children's book, Musical Instruments of Africa . The center served as an important site in New York's black culture; the last performance given by Coltrane before his death in 1967 was held there, and Olatunji used it as a home base for school-based educational programs. One young person who had attended an Olatunji school workshop was future Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. However, Olatunji had signed away his rights to the considerable profits reaped by Drums of Passion and its successors, and he faced persistent financial problems as his Harlem center attracted little institutional support. It closed in the early 1980s. For a short time he returned to Nigeria and considered entering politics in that country.

The revival of Olatunji's career coincided with a new wave of American interest in African music in the 1980s, now manifest as much among white as among black audiences. After Olatunji met Mickey Hart once again, he was invited to open for the Grateful Dead at a 1985 New Year's Eve concert in Oakland, California. Some of early albums were reissued on compact disc by the Rykodisc label. In 1991 Olatunji appeared on Hart's Grammy-winning global percussion compilation Planet Drum . By this time, hand drumming and drum circle meetings had become popular in communities oriented toward New Age spirituality; one 1992 drum circle organized by Hart in Marin County, California, drew 2,000 participants. Though such drummers reproduced few of the complexities of African percussion, they looked toward Olatunji as a spiritual forefather.

Never wealthy, and troubled by diabetes symptoms in his later years, Olatunji made a living by touring and by teaching at spiritual retreats such as upstate New York's Omega Institute and (as artist-in-residence) the Esalen Institute in California's Big Sur area, where he resided toward the end of his life. Occasionally he received guest academic posts in Europe and Africa. Olatunji recorded new albums, including Drums of Passion: The Beat (1986), Drums of Passion: The Invocation (1988), and Love Drum Talk (1997). He also made an instructional video, African Drumming . In 1997 he performed at the Million Woman March in Washington, D.C. Babatunde Olatunji died in Big Sur, California, on April 6, 2003.


Contemporary Black Biography , volume 36, Gale, 2002.

Olatunji, Babatunde, with Robert Atkinson, The Beat of My Drum: An Autobiography , Temple University Press, 2005.


Black Issues Book Review , May-June 2005.

Independent (London, England), April 11, 2003.

New York Times , April 9, 2003.

San Francisco Chronicle , April 10, 2003.

Times (London, England), April 12, 2003.

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