April 7, 1927|
Ajido, Lagos State, Nigeria
|Origin||New York City, United States|
|Died||April 6, 2003(aged 75)|
|Instruments||Drums, percussion, djembe|
|Labels||Columbia, CBS, Narada, Virgin, EMI|
Olatunji was born in the village of Ajido, a small town near Badagry, Lagos State, in southwestern 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 program, and applied for it. He went to the United States of America in 1950.
Olatunji received a Rotary scholarship in 1950 and was educated at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, where he desired to, but never sang in the Morehouse College Glee Club. Olatunji was a good friend of Glee Club director Dr. Wendell P. Whalum and collaborated with him on a staple of the choir's repertoire, "Betelehemu", a Nigerian Christmas carol. After graduating from Morehouse, he 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.
In 1959 Olatunji released his first of six records on the Columbia label, called Drums of Passion. Drums of Passion became a major hit and remains in print; it introduced many Americans to world music. Drums of Passion also served as the band's name. Notable members included; Clark Terry, Bill Lee, Horace Silver, Yusef Lateef, Sikiru Adepoju, Charles Lloyd, Sanga of The Valley (Anthony Francis), and William "Spaceman" Patterson among others.
Olatunji won a following among jazz musicians, notably creating a strong relationship with John Coltrane, with whose help he founded the Olatunji Center for African Culture in Harlem. This was the site of Coltrane's final performance. Olatunji recorded with many other prominent musicians (often credited as "Michael Olatunji"), including Cannonball Adderley (on his 1961 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!, and with Grateful Dead member Mickey Hart on his Grammy winning Planet Drum projects. He is also mentioned in the lyrics of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Free" as recorded on the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.
In 1969, Carlos Santana had a major hit with his cover version of this first album's "Jin-go-lo-ba", which Santana recorded on his debut album, Santana, as "Jingo." 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), Circle of Drums (2005) (originally titled Cosmic Rhythm Vibrations, with Muruga Booker and Sikiru Adepoju), and Olatunji Live at Starwood (2003 – recorded at the 1997 Starwood Festival ) with guest Halim El-Dabh. He also contributed to Peace Is The World Smiling: A Peace Anthology For Families on the Music For Little People label (1993).
Olatunji favoured a big percussion sound, and his records typically featured more than 20 players, unusual for a percussion-based ensemble.
Film and theatre
Olatunji was known for making an 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 foreword by Joan Baez, (Temple University Press, 2005). He toured the American south with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr and joined King in the march on Washington. 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. On July 21, 1979, he appeared at the Amandla Festival along with Bob Marley, Dick Gregory, Patti LaBelle and Eddie Palmieri, amongst others.
Olatunji was also a music educator, and invented a method of teaching and recording drum patterns which he called the "Gun-Dun, Go-Do, Pa-Ta" method after the different sounds made on the drum.
Olatunji taught drum and dance workshops year-round starting in the late 1950s. Over the years he presented workshops nationally and internationally at colleges, universities, civic, cultural, and governmental organizations.
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 a summer drumming and African dance course with his wife, at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York for many summers during Family week. He also taught at the Esalen Institute in California from 1985 on. For the few years before his death Olatunji made his home at the wild Big Sur coastline. He became a scholar-in-residence at the Esalen Instutut. During this time, he already suffered severely from diabetes and was assisted by Nora Arjuna, Leo Thompson and Leon Ryan till until shortly before his death in Salinas, California, in 2003, on the day before his 76th birthday.
- Olatunji was part of Mickey Hart's Planet Drum projects, including the album Planet Drum, which won the Grammy Award for Best World Music Album of 1991, the first year for which the award was given.
- He was an inductee into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 2001.
- Drums of Passion (1959)
- Zungo! (1961)
- Flaming Drums (1962, Columbia Records CS8666)
- Soul Makossa (1973, Paramount, EP)
- Dance to the Beat of My Drum (1986, Bellaphon)
- Drums of Passion: The Invocation (1988, Rykodisc)
- Drums of Passion: The Beat (1989, Rykodisc)
- Drums of Passion: Celebrate Freedom, Justice & Peace (1993, Olatunji Music)
- Drums of Passion and More (1994, Bear Family) Box Set
- Babatunde Olatunji, Healing Rhythms, Songs and Chants (1995, Olatunji Music)
- Love Drum Talk (1997, Chesky)
- Drums of Passion [Expanded] (2002)
- Olatunji Live at Starwood (2003) Recorded Live at the Starwood Festival 1997
- Healing Session (2003, Narada)
- Circle of Drums (2005, Chesky)
- Olatunji and His Drums of Passion (Video) (1986 Video Arts International) Recorded Live at Oakland Colisium 12/31/85
- Love Drum Talk (Video) (1998, CHE, TMS, Chesky)
- African Drumming (Instructional video) (2004, Interworld)
- Olatunji Live at Starwood (DVD) (2005, ACE) Recorded Live at the Starwood Festival 1997
- 1960: Uhuru Afrika – Randy Weston
- 1960: We Insist! – Max Roach
- 1960: The Incredible Kai Winding Trombones – Kai Winding
- 1961: Common Ground – Herbie Mann
- 1961: African Waltz – Cannonball Adderley
- 1977: Silver 'n Percussion – Horace Silver
- 1977: Home in the Country – Pee Wee Ellis
- 1980: Connections – Richie Havens
- 1987: Taj – Taj Mahal
- 1988: The Other Side of This – Airto Moreira
- 1989: In The Blood Soundtrack – (Rykodisc)
- 1990: At the Edge – Mickey Hart (Rykodisc)
- 1991: Planet Drum – Mickey Hart (Rykodisc)
- 1991: Around the World for a Song (Rykodisc)
- 1991: Jungle Fever – Stevie Wonder
- 1993: Peace Is The World Smiling: A Peace Anthology For Families – Various Artists
- 1994: The Big Bang: In the Beginning Was a Drum
- 1994: The Best of Both Worlds: Rykodisc/Hannibal World Music Sampler
- 1995: The Big Bang
- 1995: Dance of the Rainbow Serpent – Carlos Santana
- 1996: Mickey Hart's Mystery Box – Mickey Hart (Rykodisc)
- 1997: Jazz 'Round Midnight – Quincy Jones
- 1998: Selections from Mondo Beat
- 1998: New Visions: World Rhythms
- 1998: Mondo Beat: Masters of Percussion
- 1998: The Best of Santana – Carlos Santana
- 1998: Supralingua – Mickey Hart and Planet Drum (Rykodisc)
- 2000: The Rose That Grew from Concrete – 2Pac
- 2000: Club Africa, Vol. 2: Hard African Funk, Afro-Jazz, & Original Afro-Beat
- 2000: Afeni Shakur Discusses "The Rose That Grew from Concrete, Vol. 1"
- 2005: Africa 100
- 2007: Global Drum Project – Mickey Hart, Zakir Hussain, Sikiru Adepoju, Giovanni Hidalgo (Shout! Factory)
- 2012: Mysterium Tremendum – Mickey Hart Band (360° Productions)
- Musical Instruments of Africa: Their Nature, Use and Place in the Life of a Deeply Musical People (1965) with Betty Warner-Dietz. John Day Company OCLC: 592096
- The Beat Of My Drum: An Autobiography (2005) (with a foreword by Joan Baez). Temple University Press ISBN 1-59213-354-1, ISBN 978-1-59213-354-3
- Ruhe, Pierre (2006-12-07). "REVIEW: Christmas with the ASO". Palm Beach Post. Retrieved 2010-11-01.
- "Babatunde Olatunji 1927 - 2003". African Music Encyclopedia. May 2003. Archived from the original on 5 June 2011. Retrieved 6 June 2011.
- "The Grammy Winners", New York Times, February 27, 1992
- http://www.pas.org/experience/halloffame.aspx Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame website
- Reference to Starwood Festival appearance in poet Ray McNiece bio 
- Referred to in Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Free" from the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)
- Babatunde Olatunji's official website (Dead link found Oct. 28, 2014), The Internet Archive's January 26, 2003 version of the page
- Babatunde Olatunji at the African Music Encyclopedia
- Babatunde Olatunji's personal page
- Salon Feature on Olatunji
- Interview with Olatunji, October 2000
- Olatunji's Autobiography