With his passing in 2003, Babatunde Olatunji’s legacy to western culture will be his creation of today’s grassroots nonprofessional drumming and dancing community. Baba spent more than three-quarters of his life tirelessly working towards building community through “rhythmaculture.” He was, in a true sense of the word, a rhythmical evangelist.
As a musician, Olatunji introduced African musical elements to the west, which had an immediate and lasting affect on American jazz. He created worldbeat music, generations before the term had even been conceived. Olatunji was also included in the Grateful Dead’s musical family, having contributed to the 1992 Grammy-award winning Planet Drum album, produced by Mickey Hart.
As a teacher, his workshops brought to us a deeper understanding of African culture in both dance music and song. Olatunji also helped other great African drummers and dancers come to the U.S., including Titos Sompa from the Congo and Ladji Camara from Guinea. He guided them in New York in his Drums Of Passion dance and drum troupe, before they established themselves as elders in the national ethnic arts community.
As a community builder, Olatunji was a man on a mission, and is the great grandfather of our ever-growing personal percussion movement. With his inspiration and guidance, this group has developed into a national community-drumming network.
The following interview was pieced together from a number of long conversations that took place while I drove Olatunji to our various “Drums Of Passion” gigs during the 1995 West Coast summer tour. He was very curious about the newly developing cultural phenomena called facilitated drum circles, and we spoke at length about it. Baba’s observations from years ago, when there were only a handful of drummers exploring facilitation, is even more appropriate now that there is a fully developed rhythm event facilitator community.
As we move closer to Baba’s dream of “a drum in every household” may we honor his memory with every beat of our drum.
Hull: Let’s talk about when you first came to America.
Olatunji: I was playing the hand drum when I was on the boat, coming here in 1950. I remember the engineer on the boat, the M.V. Eluru of the West African Boat Line that brings all the cargoes from West Africa to the United States through New Orleans. It wasn’t a passenger boat. It had a few cabins that they would sell to passengers, but it was actually a cargo boat. The engineer said, “A strange man in a strange land shouldn’t sing a strange song,” because every morning I would play my hand drum just to amuse myself. It was a sakara — it’s a small hand drum, which has the form of a tambourine. I came over to become a Rhodes Scholar, studying to become a diplomat. I was hoping to be able to one day represent Nigeria in the U.N., or as a diplomat or an ambassador to some country.
Hull: Instead you became an ambassador of African culture in the U.S. How did you make that transition?
Olatunji: Because of circumstances that led me to doing what I’m doing now. When I arrived on the campus of Morehouse College in Atlanta, I saw a lot of African Americans, brothers, who looked like people I know very well at home. I saw people who looked like my cousins, or my uncle. I saw women who looked like women I liked very much. And I said, “You look like friends of mine.” And they’d say, “Oh no, I’m not from Africa. Don’t you ever tell me that. I’m a Negro and I’m from the United States.” I couldn’t believe my ears. I said, “Your ancestors are from Africa.” They were very sincere, but I could not fully understand why they said that. They asked me questions about whether we had lions running the streets. I was not discouraged, though, because I had discovered the sincerity in their voices, in the way they asked the questions, they wanted to learn. Then I discovered Hollywood’s unholy war on Africa — the betrayer of Africa. Movies I saw in the ’50s portrayed Africa with Tarzan and Jane swinging from tree to tree, people sleeping in trees, headhunters, as if nothing good could come from Africa. So I really wanted to identify myself with Africa, and say, “Let me educate you about Africa.” And that is how the first program was put together. The first dance company, the first production, that’s how I started. Then after graduating, I moved to New York. I decided to move there on my first visit to New York in my freshman year. I saw Harlem and said, “Oh, this is where my people are. This is the place to come to continue the program.”