Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
For half a century, percussionist Babatunde Olatunji has spread his message of fellowship through music around the globe. Now he’s trying to bring it to D.C.
It’s Babatunde Olatunji’s 74th birthday, and he’ll dance if he wants to. On a Saturday night in April at the Paramount Theatre in Middletown, N.Y., about 1,200 fans stand in anticipation of the moment.
Percussionist Mickey Hart, of Grateful Dead fame, steps out from behind his drum kit. He grabs a cow bell and starts hammering out a rhythm. A cadre of other drummers follow Hart’s lead and form a circle at the front of the stage. They face Olatunji and drop to their knees.
Two concerned onlookers hover at Olatunji’s elbows, offering support should he fall. Olatunji shakes them off and sashays into the circle of drummers. Despite his age, an advanced case of diabetes, and a gangrenous finger in need of amputation, Olatunji dances. He holds his arms out wide, and, with his dashiki billowing, spins in a circle and twists down to the ground. He dares the young drummers to match him.
The crowd roars. Only a few hours earlier, Olatunji had shuffled onstage with the help of two friends and greeted the audience in a hoarse voice that was upbeat, yet weary. Olatunji’s transformation is nothing short
When he’s done dancing, Olatunji returns to his microphone and picks up where he left off. His regal voice, at once sorrowful and ecstatic, triumphant and defeated, bellows through the auditorium, filling the room with a sound that moves many to tears. It’s a timeless voice that’s instantly recognizable as the one from Olatunji’s hallmark album, Drums of Passion, which Columbia Records released in 1959 and has gone on to sell more than 5 million copies. It was a record that gave many Americans their first taste of African music and helped kick open the door of the U.S. music industry to musicians around the world.
The Spirit of the Arts Foundation in Middletown organized the two nights of musical performances and the two days of drumming workshops to raise money for Olatunji’s exorbitant medical expenses. More than 15 bands, including the District’s Circle, Skin & Bone and percussionist guru Tony Vacca’s World Rhythms, have congregated at their own expense to perform on Olatunji’s behalf.
During a pause in the music, Hart grabs a microphone. “He didn’t just bring the drum to America,” he tells the audience. “He brought with him the spirit of the drum. In 1959, I heard him drum for the first time. It changed my life. You take the feeling of the drum and you make a better world. Baba taught me that.”
Throughout his life, Olatunji has taken advantage of every opportunity to parlay his talent as a musician not into personal profit but into community improvement. And for what might be his closing act, Olatunji has settled into a modest house in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, D.C., to finish up his life’s work.
“It’s a very important city,” Olatunji says when asked why he moved to the District last year, after nearly four decades in New York City. “I wanted to see what I can do here.”
During the fall presidential campaign, Olatunji wrote a letter to George W. Bush. Olatunji, a part-time policy wonk, was betting on the Texas governor to be the next president of the United States.
“I told him that he could take a giant step ahead of his predecessors by promoting a comprehensive economic development plan for Africa,” says Olatunji. He also offered to perform at Bush’s inauguration festivitiesbut he says that he’s still waiting for a reply.
In the meantime, Olatunji is working on his autobiography, which is under contract with Temple University Press. He is also attempting to reopen in D.C. the Olatunji Center for African Culture, which from 1963 to 1988 offered residents of Harlem affordable drumming and dancing classes and a place to learn about African traditions.
“The youth of Washington need some direction,” says Olatunji. “I want to introduce them to Africa, to a continent they can be proud of. I want African-Americans to embrace Africa the way Jews embrace Israel.”
Olatunji says that he is still soliciting money for the community center from local corporations and philanthropists. “I want the young people here to have drums instead of guns,” he says. After a pause, he reiterates: “Drums, not guns.”
Although drums have played a pivotal role in his life, Olatunji originally came to the United States to study political science, not music. Born in Ajido, Nigeria, a rural village about 40 miles outside the capital city, Lagos, Olatunji received a Rotary International scholarship to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta.
In 1950, at the age of 23, Olatunji left Nigeria for the first time and headed to the United States by boat. “It was a culture shock,” he says. “I thought everyone would be walking around picking money off of trees.”
Instead, Olatunji found a culture segregated by race and suffering from the legacy of slavery. Perhaps most disturbing to Olatunji was Americans’ ignorance of his home continent. “I realized that the image of Africa based on Tarzan and Jane had to be corrected,” he says.
Olatunji joined Morehouse’s All-Africa Student Union, becoming its president during his last two years in college, and prepared himself for a career in diplomacy, hoping someday to serve as an emissary between the United States and Nigeria.
But in 1954, after Olatunji graduated from Morehouse and moved to New York City to continue his academic studies at New York University, he started playing music in his free time with other African drummers living in the area.
The overwhelmingly positive response that his music won from audiences resulted in an epiphany of sorts for Olatunji: “I became aware that the culture was the best way to unify the people,” he says. “Because the way that the politics of the world work, I knew the politicians wouldn’t do it. They divide and draw lines of demarcation with justifications of why we should be divided.”
In 1958, Olatunji joined a 66-piece orchestra at Radio City Music Hall for a conga-inflected jam session. An executive from Columbia Records who was in attendance liked what he heard. Shortly thereafter, Olatunji was signed to record for Columbia. Teo Macero and John Hammondthe Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee credited with finding Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, and Aretha Franklin for Columbia Recordsproduced Drums of Passion, which featured the traditional singing and rhythms of the Yoruban culture that Olatunji says infused his childhood in Ajido. Sales of the record soared, and Olatunji became an overnight sensation.
With his newfound popularity, Olatunji enacted a plan designed to boost his message rather than his record sales. “I realized that because I had no political affiliation or appointment,” he says, “the best way to get my message across was by teaching the culture to young people.”
So instead of booking shows at concert halls around the country, Olatunji embarked on a tour of middle and high schools throughout the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut tristate region. Over the next several years, Olatunji introduced thousands of students to the rhythms and dances of West Africa. Among the children for whom Olatunji performed were Hart and future comedian Andy Kaufman, who incorporated conga drums into his stage routines.
“Mickey was one of the students who came up on stage and played with me,” Olatunji remembers. “And he was really good. I went over and raised his hand in the air and said to the rest of the school, ‘Here he is.’”
Nearly three decades later, Olatunji’s kindness toward a high school kid in Long Island came back to help him. By the mid-’80s, Olatunji’s recording career was floundering. His five follow-ups to Drums of Passion hadn’t sold wellColumbia had dropped him back in 1966. Although he continued to perform and to teach African culture, a recording contract eluded him. Then, on Dec. 30, 1985, Olatunji’s path once again crossed with Hart’s.
Hart tracked down Olatunji, who was in San Francisco for a performance, and reintroduced himself to the man who had once inspired him to be a drummer. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘What are you doing tomorrow night?’” says Olatunji. The next nightNew Year’s EveOlatunji opened for the Grateful Dead at the Oakland Coliseum. “Mickey reintroduced me to the world,” he says.
The subsequent resurgence of Olatunji’s career included collaborations with Spike Lee on the soundtrack to She’s Gotta Have It, with Carlos Santana on Olatunji’s 1988 album, Drums of Passion: The Invocation, and with Hart on numerous projects, including a Grammy-winning 1991 album called Planet Drum.
Although Olatunji’s album sales have waxed and waned throughout his career, his dedication to teaching has been steadfast. In addition to his 25 years of teaching at the Olatunji Center for African Culture in Harlem, Olatunji has served as an instructor at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y., the Kripalu Center in Lenox, Mass., and the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif.
“Baba’s message is that life is a prayer,” says Imani White, a Rockville-based musician and teacher who has studied extensively with Olatunji. “The whole philosophy of unifying people, rather than dividing people, is a big part of his message.”
From French colonialists in Guinea to British imperialists in Trinidad, European cultures had long repressed the music and religion associated with African hand drumming, first in West Africa and later in the Caribbean. Olatunji was one of the first musicians in the United States to reach out to people of European descent and invite them to take part in the hand-drumming culture.
“When my privilege and right to play the drum was challenged, because of my gender and the color of my skin, and Baba was put to the test, he stood up for me,” writes White in a tribute book to Olatunji that she compiled for the benefit event. “By doing so he stood up for all women, he stood up for unity and peace amongst all drummers and dancers, and he stood up for the heart and soul of Africa.”
“He wants people to spread the music around,” says Jaqui MacMillan, a D.C. drummer who has won six Washington Area Music Association awards for Best World Music Instrumentalist. “He doesn’t want to keep the music just for himself or for one group of people.”
After MacMillan first heard Olatunji, at Washington’s Club Kilimanjaro in the late ’80s, she became both his student and his close friend. “People see him as a mentor, as a father figure, and as an elder in the community,” says MacMillan. “They sit at his feet and they listen.”
On the Sunday morning following Olatunji’s dance onstage at the Paramount Theatre, a crowd of about 50 drummers do exactly that: They sit on the basketball-court floor at Orange County Community College at Olatunji’s feet and they listen.
Olatunji sits in the center of the crowd, telling stories and offering advice. His narratives sometimes wander, but whether he’s telling a story about an underappreciated doctor or about coming to America for the first time, he keeps returning to the same message: “Always remember,” he says, “it is in giving that you receive.”
Olatunji’s thoughts are momentarily interrupted when someone hollers what has become a familiar chorus during the weekend’s events: “Baba, we love you.”
Olatunji looks up, smiles, and replies as he always does: “But I love you first.” CP