Arthur Hull & Babatunde Olatunji: Changing The World, One Beat At A Time

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.”

{pagebreak}

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.”

{pagebreak}

Hull: [laughs] And this is one of them!
Olatunji: Not totally. It is answerable. The spirit of the drum is something that you feel but cannot put your hands on it. You feel when people come together to play. It does something to you from the inside out, but you can’t really put your hands on it. You feel it while you’re playing and after you play for a while, sometimes for 24 hours, sometimes for two or three days. It hits people in so many different ways, that to try to define it would just be a matter of semantics, the use of words. But the feeling is one that is satisfying and joyful. It is a feeling that makes you say to yourself, “Yes, I’m glad to be alive today. I’m glad I’m here. I’m glad I’m a part of this world.” It stays with you until other things come and take your attention away from it, but you will always remember it.

Hull: Another part of your mission is to be the focal point for orchestration. As a facilitator, you bring people together to express their rhythmical spirit in a community drum circle. As our drumming community grows so does our need for more facilitators. And as new facilitators crop up, the question is, what priorities should they have? I think as long as they are promoting the community rather than themselves, they are learning a basic and very important aspect about the mission.
Olatunji: First of all, whoever is given the opportunity to be a facilitator must have realized that it’s an opportunity to develop our own talents. It’s true; drum teachers might have certain knowledge that probably will prepare them to facilitate a drum community. But you cannot allow self interest to supersede the goal. I’m not playing a double role. I have to play the role of the facilitator, not the teacher, to bring out the common ground to all of the people in the community. That is the goal.

Hull: So, a drum teacher can have good facilitation tools, which you can use in a drum circle. But if you put them on top of the hierarchy of priorities then all of a sudden you’re teaching a drum class rather than facilitating spirit in a drum circle.
Olatunji: That’s right.

Hull: But, if you don’t use the tools that you’ve generated as a drum teacher then of course ...
Olatunji: You fail.

Hull: I’ve seen some people who aren’t good drummers become good drum circle facilitators.
Olatunji: Yes.

Hull: Because they understand the importance of the mission.
Olatunji: Because you are not there to teach or to show people how well you can play. You’re there because you know how to bring music out of them. You have to say, “Look, you’ve got something that you probably don’t know you’ve got. I will prove it to you that you can do it by just doing it.” That’s what we’re talking about.

Hull: You taught me a great lesson. A few years ago while I was being pushed out into the national drum community circuit, you took me aside and said, “You come into town and get them all excited and leave. What are you leaving? You have given them inspiration, but have you introduced them to teachers in the area?”
Olatunji: Where can they go after you’re gone? What are they going to do tomorrow or next week?

Hull: Now wherever I go, I contact all the drum teachers and facilitators in the area that I can, and have them come to the drum circle so they can be introduced and acknowledged.
Olatunji: So that the community will know “Oh yeah, we’ve got these people in our community.”

Hull: What would you like to say to the growing number of facilitators who are coming forward and fulfilling this need in the community?
Olatunji: The great teacher said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, that they shall inherit the earth.” Facilitators have to rejoice in the fact that they are messengers. They are given an opportunity to be the one who is called upon to help build the bond that exists between people. He’s the one who goes around telling it to the world, “Don’t you forget. We all have a job to do. We need to heal our community and heal the planet.” He becomes the servant of all. Because of that assignment he will be provided for automatically. Because it has been ordained that the flock will always take care of the shepherd. So the shepherd has to be there for the community to remind you that you are just as important as everybody else.

Hull: No one is any more or less important in a community drum circle. Everyone has something to give to bring the community song alive and to make the magic.
Olatunji: That’s what makes it become an irresistible force that can evolve and become an immovable object.

Hull: The media is calling this grass roots movement “the hand drumming phenomena.” It’s really the beginning of something that is going to affect the culture of the United States in some strong ways. I’d like to put you in a time machine and send you ten years into the future. Based upon what you have seen happening within the U. S. since 1950, where do you think hand drumming will be ten years from now?
Olatunji: Well, it depends on how we promote it. I think we will have to teach it to our schoolchildren as part of their education, like football or basketball. That way it will not be a fad. We don’t want all of them to be musicians, but they will know it because they have touched it.

Hull: It will be a part of our culture.
Olatunji: Yes. It needs to be a part of the culture for the simple reason that the world is here in America. And because the world is here, the world has brought its culture here. The world culture then must be preserved here as well. There will be people who know how to play sakara in Berkeley even if its not being played in Lagos, so at least it’s being preserved.

Hull: That’s why it has to be integrated into our cultural expression.
Olatunji: It’s happening now. This is a mosaic. It’s what makes this country great. There is no other place in the world like America, right? People come from all parts of the world to make America what it is. Cultures must be preserved for that reason. Let me tell you what’s going to happen. We are so lucky that some of the people who are now in our drumming and dance classes and our workshops can become executives. So they’re going to use it. It’s a good thing. They are young now, and are interested in what’s happening, and they are going to make sure that this thing survives. They are going to be different than the CEOs that we have now because of their exposure to multi-cultural situations. It is a quiet cultural revolution that will unite all people. It will solve many of the problems that seem so impossible. I have a great hope for this happening in the future. That will be a wonderful thing to see.