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Babatunde Olatunji Biography

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Babatunde Olatunji (April 7, 1927 - April 6, 2003) was a Nigerian drummer.

Born in the village of Ajido, Nigeria, a member of the Yoruba people, Olatunji was introduced to traditional African music at an early age. He read in Reader's Digest magazine about the Rotary International Foundation's scholarship programme, and applied for it. He came to the United States of America on a Rotary scholarship in 1950 and was educated at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.

After graduating from Morehouse, Olatunji went on to New York University to study public administration. There, he started a small percussion group to earn money on the side while he continued his studies. He won a following among jazz musicians, notably creating a strong relationship with John Coltrane and Columbia Records A&R man John Hammond who signed him to the Columbia label in 1957.

With Coltrane's help, he founded the Olatunji Center for African Culture in Harlem. This was the site of Coltrane's final performance.

In 1959 Olatunji released his first of six records on the Columbia label, called Drums of Passion. Carlos Santana had a major hit with his cover version of this first album's Jingo-lo-ba. Olatunji favoured a big percussion sound, and his records typically featured more than 20 players, unusual for a percussion based ensemble. Drums of Passion became a major hit and remains in print; it introduced many Americans to world music. Drums of Passion also served as his band name. This band included at, various times, among others; Clark Terry, Bill Lee, Horace Silver, Yusef Lateef and Charles Lloyd.

Olatunji's subsequent recordings include Drums of Passion: The Invocation (1988), Drums of Passion: The Beat (1989) which included Airto Moreira and Carlos Santana, Love Drum Talk (1997), and Olatunji Live at Starwood (2003 - recorded at the 1997 Starwood Festival) with guest Halim El-Dabh[1]. Olatunji also recorded with Cannonball Adderley on his African Waltz album, Horace Silver, Quincy Jones, Pee Wee Ellis, Stevie Wonder, Randy Weston, and with Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln on the pivotal Freedom Now Suite aka We Insist, with Grateful Dead member Mickey Hart on his Grammy winning Planet Drum projects, and with Muruga Booker and Sikiru Adepoju on Circle of Drums (2005).

Olatunji composed music for the Broadway and Hollywood productions of Raisin in the Sun. He assisted Bill Lee with the music for his son Spike Lee's hit film She's Gotta Have It.

Olatunji was known for making a brief impassioned speech for social justice before performing in front of a live audience. His progressive political beliefs are outlined in "The Beat Of My Drum: An Autobiography," with a foreward by Joan Baez, (Temple University Press, 2005). He toured the American south with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. When he performed before the United Nations General Assembly, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev took off his shoes and danced. Later, he was one of the first outside performers to perform in Prague at Václav Havel's request.

Olatunji also contributed to "Peace Is The World Smiling: A Peace Anthology For Families" on the Music For Little People label (1989).

Olatunji is mentioned in the lyrics of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Free" as recorded on the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.

Olatunji was also a music educator, and invented a method of teaching and recording drum patterns. He co-wrote, "Musical Instruments of Africa: Their Nature, Use and Place in the Life of a Deeply Musical People" with Betty Warner-Dietz (John Day Company, 1965). He taught at the Esalen Institute in California starting in 1985 until his death from diabetes in 2003.
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