Arthur Hull Interviews Olatunji
Hull: How long did it take before the public began to take notice of your work?
Olatunji: That started just after the release of the Drums Of Passion album in 1959. It was right there on Billboard’s Top Ten for weeks and weeks. That started getting us national attention. Then also, it was during the ’60s, a period when social change was happening in this country, which also gave me an opportunity to participate in this change.
Hull: Young people were looking for and discovering a new way of living and recreating their culture.
Olatunji: That’s right. So I was credited with the cultural awareness that was going on, of the African Americans and all young people both black and white. How many black radio stations did you know then? Very few if any. There was one in the New York area, WLWU, with a very wonderful man Murray The K, who would always open his shows with “Akiwowo” [from Drums Of Passion]. And he would play it and say, “Well the chief is here today. The change is coming. Look out you guys.” The young people on college campuses both black and white would listen to Drums Of Passion.
Hull: That’s basically where I first heard Drums Of Passion, in college. It paved the way for the workshops you did throughout the country. And that began the birthing process of the drumming communities that we see today.
Olatunji: We first introduced African dancing and drumming on college campuses throughout the United States. We traveled the length and breadth of the United States and visited over 1,000 colleges and universities over the last 20 years. Probably any college in the East to the Midwest, Minneapolis to California. In the ’80s we opened with a jazz band at the same time we were running the dance company. The jazz band consisted of people like Yousef Lateef and Charles Lloyd, and the manager of Birdland would always give me 13 weeks to open all the big bands that came there. And then we opened the Troubadour in Los Angeles and another club in San Francisco in 1963 before the march on Washington. When we would go to places to perform, I’d also take the opportunity to say, “Do you have a center where people go? Let me go and give a lecture there.” That was very important because it became more than just people coming and doing a concert for the students. I’d give them a workshop in drumming and dance. It was an opportunity to sell the act, but also an opportunity for people to have an understanding of what we are doing. It’s important to let people get a little closer. So that they can see and experience and feel what you are doing and what you are a part of. It’s also okay for someone to perform and for people to clap their hands at the end then leave. But to really be a part of it, to know that they can be a part of it, is more.
Hull: Why do you think people from all walks of life are picking up a hand drum and getting involved in this hand drumming phenomena that is sweeping the United States today?
Olatunji: Well, they are going back to their roots. We’re people who started with body percussion, with clapping of the hands, stamping of the feet. I guess it’s the way we started to amuse ourselves. That’s how we learned to imitate sounds of birds and all kinds of things we hear around us, because of man’s capacity to imitate. That’s how we figured out how to make different instruments. So we started way back, and now we are going back to just ourselves. Rediscovering ourselves. And from there on we can move forward. We are trying to put together the great things of the past with the present for the future. You know the sky is not the limit anymore, it is space now. We are discovering that we need to come back down to earth, from where we started. It’s as if we are trying to balance things up, in essence.
Hull: We are trying to balance the technological society that has taken us away from ...
Olatunji: That has taken us away from the reality of the earth that supports us.
Hull: ... the reality of our connection with the earth and our connection with each other as people ...
Olatunji: It gave birth to us in the first place. We need to recognize that it will always be there. It’s there for us to use, replenish and leave for forthcoming generations, so we cannot afford to destroy it. We are learning to do that now. We are also finding the simple things that people can do together. All people from all walks of life, all colors, have various things that they can do together, and it’s the simplest thing to make music and sing together.
Hull: Let’s talk about your workshops. They do more than just educate people about African culture. They are basically a place for a community to come together. You address a tremendous amount of your work to building and feeding a healthy community though the dances, songs and rhythms that you teach. Do you always try to convey such a message through your workshops?
Olatunji: Well, I must confess that I deliberately make sure my presentation is geared towards the message that emphasizes togetherness, the one that promotes love and the one that makes everyone feel important. I know I must think about what I’m going to say, and I know also that my actions speak louder than my words. So I also try to practice what I preach.
Hull: Such as “getting even”?
Olatunji: As the old Chinese proverb says, the only people that we should really get even with are those who have done us a good turn. So I don’t let go of anybody who has done something good for me. Those are the people that I spend my time and energy with. I have no time or spare energy for anything or anyone who is being detrimental to my spirit, or keeping me from my goal. When you think about it, it’s true. The energy that you put together trying to get even with people who do unpleasant things to you can kill you. But the energy that you put together to get even with people who are nice to you gives you more power, gives you joy, and that accelerates you.
Hull: You often hear people talk about the spirit of the drum. This phrase is used a lot, but hasn’t been well defined. We as a group feel that something happens when we gather to drum together, and people say “Oh, that’s the spirit of the drum.” But what is it?
Olatunji: [laughs] A great teacher of mine once said, “There are some questions that can never be answered, and would be useless if known.”