Babatunde Olatunji

Michael Babatunde Olatunji (April 7, 1927 – April 6, 2003) was a Nigerian drummer, educator, social activist, and recording artist.[1]

Nigerian percussionist
Babatunde Olatunji
Birth name Michael Babatunde Olatunji
Born (1927-04-07)April 7, 1927
Ajido, Lagos State, British Nigeria
Died April 6, 2003(2003-04-06) (aged 75)
Salinas, California
Genres Yoruba music, Apala
Instruments Drums, percussion, djembe
Years active 1959–2003
Labels Columbia, CBS, Narada, Virgin, EMI, Chesky
Website olatunjimusic.com
Musical artist
Babatunde Olatunji, second from right, at the Tal Vadya Utsav International Drums & Percussion Festival, Siri Fort Auditorium, New Delhi, 1985

. . . Babatunde Olatunji . . .

Olatunji was born in the village of Ajido, near Badagry, Lagos State, in southwestern Nigeria. A member of the Ogu people, Olatunji was introduced to traditional African music at an early age. His name, Bàbátúndé, means ‘father has returned’, because he was born two months after his father, an Ogu (Egun) man, Zannu died, and Olatunji was considered to be a reincarnation. His father was a local fisherman who was about to rise to the rank of chieftain, and his mother was a potter who was a member of the Ogu people. Olatunji grew up speaking the Gun (Ogu/Egun) and Yoruba languages. His maternal grandmother and a great-grandmother were priestesses of the Vodun and Ogu religions, and they worshipped the Vodun, such as Kori, the goddess of fertility.[2][3] Because of his father’s premature death, from an early age he was groomed to take the position as chief.

When he was 12, he realized that he did not want to become a chieftain. He read in Reader’s Digest magazine about the Rotary International Foundation’s scholarship program, and applied for it. His application was successful and he went to the United States of America in 1950.

Olatunji received a Rotary scholarship in 1950 and was educated at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, where he desired to, but never sang in the Morehouse College Glee Club. Olatunji was a good friend of Glee Club director Dr. Wendell P. Whalum and collaborated with him on a staple of the choir’s repertoire, “Betelehemu”, a Nigerian Christmas carol. 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.[4]

After hearing Olatunji perform with the 66 piece Radio City Music Hall orchestra Columbia Records signed Olatunji to the Columbia label in 1957. Two years later he released his first of six records on the Columbia label, called Drums of Passion. 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.

Olatunji won a following among jazz musicians, notably creating a strong relationship with John Coltrane, with whose help he founded the Olatunji Center for African Culture in Harlem. This was the site of Coltrane’s final recorded performance. Coltrane wrote the composition “Tunji” on the 1962 album Coltrane in dedication to him. Olatunji recorded with many other prominent musicians (often credited as “Michael Olatunji”), including Cannonball Adderley (on his 1961 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” in the version on the album The Bootleg Series Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962–1964.[5]

In 1969, Carlos Santana had a major hit with his cover version of “Jin-go-lo-ba” from Olatunji’s first album, which Santana recorded on his debut album, Santana, as “Jingo”. 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 (1993).

. . . Babatunde Olatunji . . .

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. . . Babatunde Olatunji . . .

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