Babatunde Olatunji

Babatunde Olatunji, Nigerian Drummer

The New York Times
Published April 9, 2003

Babatunde Olatunji, the Nigerian drummer, bandleader and teacher who was a tireless ambassador for African music and culture in the United States, died on Sunday in Salinas, Calif. He was 76 and lived at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif.

The cause was complications of advanced diabetes, said his daughter Modupe Olantunji Anuku.

Mr. Olatunji's 1959 album, "Drums of Passion," was the first album of African drumming recorded in stereo in an American studio, and it introduced a generation to the power and intricacy of African music. While field recordings of African drumming had been available, "Drums of Passion" reached a mass public with its vivid sound and exotic song titles like "Primitive Fire."

Mr. Olatunji was born and reared in Ajido, a fishing and trading village pervaded by Yoruba culture, and he made it his lifework to bring village memories to audiences everywhere. His band of drummers, singers and dancers evoked both the village's music and its masquerades, with outsize figures dancing in elaborate raffia costumes. His credo was: "Rhythm is the soul of life. The whole universe revolves in rhythm. Everything and every human action revolves in rhythm."

In 1950 Mr. Olatunji received a scholarship to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta. He was planning to become a diplomat. He studied public administration at New York University, where he formed an African-style ensemble that eventually turned into his full-time occupation.

The group performed at concerts and at civil rights rallies led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After the group appeared with an orchestra at Radio City Music Hall, Mr. Olatunji was signed to Columbia Records. Mr. Olatunji secured foundation grants to tour schools. Among the students who were impressed by his performances — dressed in African robes and playing hand-hewn goat-hide drums — was Mickey Hart, who would go on to join the Grateful Dead and later recharge Mr. Olatunji's career.

"Drums of Passion" made Mr. Olatunji the most visible African musician in the United States. Bob Dylan cited him alongside King and Willie Mays in "I Shall Be Free" in 1963.

"Drums of Passion" was hugely influential among musicians, helping to spark a wave of African-jazz fusions in the early 1960's. "Jin-Go-Lo-Ba," from "Drums of Passion," was remade as "Jingo" to become the first single by Santana in 1969. Mr. Olatunji mixed African music and jazz on his albums for Columbia in the 1960's. He was a featured performer at the African Pavilion of the 1964 New York World's Fair. With support from John Coltrane, he established the Olatunji Center for African Culture in Harlem, which offered music and dance lessons to children until 1988.

After his Columbia contract ended in 1965, Mr. Olatunji continued to perform, record and teach. Mr. Hart invited him to open for the Grateful Dead's New Year's Eve show in Oakland, Calif., in 1985, introducing his music to a new audience. Mr. Hart also persuaded his label, Rykodisc, to rerelease two independently recorded 1980's albums by Mr. Olatunji: "Drums of Passion: The Beat" (1986), which included guest appearances by the guitarist Carlos Santana, and "Drums of Passion: The Invocation" (1988), featuring Yoruba chants. Mr. Olatunji recorded and toured during the 1990's as a member of Mr. Hart's world-beat supergroup, Planet Drum, and made an instructional videotape, "African Drumming," released in 1996. He moved to Washington and then to Big Sur, where he became an artist in residence at Esalen.

Mr. Olatunji also continued to lead his own group, Drums of Passion, which included students and family members: his daughter Modupe and his seven grandchildren.

He is also survived by his wife, Amy Bush Olatunji, from whom he is separated; two sons, Omotola Olatunji, of Brooklyn, and Niyi Esubiyi, of Belle Meade, N.J.; another daughter, Folasade Olatunji Olusekun of Boston; and a brother, Dr. Akinsola Akiwowo, of Alexandria, Va.

Mr. Olatunji's most recent album, "Love Drum Talk" (Chesky) was released in 1997 and was nominated for a Grammy Award. Columbia reissued an expanded version of the original "Drums of Passion" last year, and Mr. Olatunji completed a new album earlier this year.