Babatunde Olatunji

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Babatunde Olatunji
Birth nameMichael Babatunde Olatunji
Born(1927-04-07)April 7, 1927
Ajido, Lagos State, British Nigeria
DiedApril 6, 2003(2003-04-06) (aged 75)
Salinas, California
GenresYoruba music, Apala
Instrument(s)Drums, percussion, djembe
Years active1959–2003
LabelsColumbia, CBS, Narada, Virgin, EMI, Chesky
Babatunde Olatunji, second from right, at the Tal Vadya Utsav International Drums & Percussion Festival, Siri Fort Auditorium, New Delhi, 1985

Michael Babatunde Olatunji (April 7, 1927 – April 6, 2003) was a Nigerian drummer, educator, social activist, and recording artist.[1]

Early life[edit]

Olatunji was born in the village of Ajido, near Badagry, Lagos State, in southwestern Nigeria. A member of the Ogu people, Olatunji was introduced to traditional African music at an early age. His name, Bàbátúndé, means 'father has returned', because he was born two months after his father, Zannu, an Ogu (Egun) man, died. Olatunji was considered to be a reincarnation of him. His father was a local fisherman who was about to rise to the rank of chieftain, and his mother was a potter who was a member of the Ogu people. Olatunji grew up speaking the Gun (Ogu/Egun) and Yoruba languages. His maternal grandmother and a great-grandmother were priestesses of the Vodun and Ogu religions, and they worshipped the Vodun, such as Kori, the goddess of fertility.[2][3]

Due to his father's premature death, from an early age he was groomed to take the position as chief. When he was 12, he realized that he did not want to become a chieftain. He read in Reader's Digest magazine about the Rotary International Foundation's scholarship program, and applied for it. His application was successful and he went to the United States in 1950 to attend Morehouse College.


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.[4]


After hearing Olatunji perform with the 66 piece Radio City Music Hall orchestra Columbia Records signed Olatunji to the Columbia label in 1958. One year later he released his first of six records on the Columbia label, called Drums of Passion.[5] 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.

Olatunji won a following among jazz musicians, by infusing Nigerian rhythms with elements drawn from Ghanaian and Afro-Caribbean traditions. Most 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 recorded performance in 1967. Coltrane wrote the composition "Tunji" on the 1962 album Coltrane in dedication to him. 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," recorded for the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.[6] He appeared in the second season episode "Olatunji – An African in New York" of the CBC television show Quest broadcast May 6, 1962, a series which also starred Bob Dylan in an episode from March 10, 1964.

In 1969, Carlos Santana had a major hit with his cover version of "Jin-go-lo-ba" from Olatunji's first album, 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).

Film and theatre[edit]

Olatunji composed music for the Broadway theatrical and the 1961 Hollywood film 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.[7]


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.

Teaching career[edit]

Olatunji was 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. He 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 beginning in 1985.

Later life and death[edit]

Starting in the late 1980s Olatunji had a resurgent late career with the release of recordings on the Rykodisc label, Olatunji - Drums of Passion,The Invocation and Olatunji - Drums of Passion, The Beat. The 1990s brought further recordings with Babatunde Olatunji, Healing Session, (originally released as a limited edition cassette tape and later on CD in 2003), and Drums of Passion - Freedom, Justice and Peace.

The 1991 release on Rykodisc, Planet Drum, a collaboration with Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead, along with an all star line up of world renowned drummers, spent a record setting streak of weeks as the number 1 ranked recording on Billboard's Top World Music Album chart. Olatunji with the drumming ensemble supported the recording with a ten city national tour, playing sold out shows at such venues as Carnegie Hall. In 1994, a major box set compiling the complete Columbia Record recordings was issued by Bear Family Records. The 1997 recording, "Love Drum Talk", on the Chesky label, was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best World Beat Music.

Throughout the 1990s Olatunji's tour schedule more than doubled bringing Drums of Passion to events as far-flung as the International Peace University, Berlin, Kodo Drum Society of Japan, The National Cathedral of the United States of America, Ontario Anti-Racist Secretariat, Universita della Studi di Napoli, United Nations Hunger Project, along with an endless schedule of theater and club dates. During the 1990s Olatunji's educational workshops were presented by organizations associated with the human potential movement, such as Esalen Institute, Omega Institute, Hollyhock Farm, and organizations in Europe. In 1997, Olatunji was impresario for the Ghana Dance Ensemble, bringing the world famous performance and education group from Accra, Ghana, to tour the U.S.

In early 2000, Olatunji purchased a home in Washington, D.C. where he lived for a short time, along with his roommate, Professor Akinsola Akiwowo. There he was assisted by Jaqui MacMillan and Chris Stewart, before he sold the house and moved to California. 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 Institute. During this time, he already suffered severely from diabetes and was assisted by Nora Arjuna, Leo Thompson, Jamie "Joriahna" Lee, and Leon Ryan until shortly before his death from diabetes in Salinas, California in 2003, one day before his 76th birthday. He was survived by his wife Amy, 3 children (Omotola Olatunji, Folashade Olatunji Olusekun, and Modupe Olatunji), 7 grandchildren, and a cousin, Akinsola Akiwowo.[8][9]


  • 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.[10]
  • He was an inductee into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 2001.[11]



  • Drums of Passion (Columbia, 1959)
  • Zungo! (Columbia, 1961)
  • Flaming Drums (Columbia, 1962)
  • High Life! (Columbia, 1963)
  • Drums!, Drums!, Drums! (Roulette, 1964)
  • Soul Makossa (Paramount, 1973)
  • Dance to the Beat of My Drum (Bellaphon, 1986)
  • Drums of Passion: The Invocation (Rykodisc, 1988)
  • Drums of Passion: The Beat (Rykodisc, 1989)
  • Drums of Passion: Celebrate Freedom, Justice & Peace (Olatunji, 1993)
  • Drums of Passion and More (Bear Family, 1994)
  • Babatunde Olatunji, Healing Rhythms, Songs and Chants (Olatunji, 1995)
  • 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

As guest[edit]

With Mickey Hart

With others

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Nigerian drummer who set the beat for US civil rights". BBC News. 2020-09-01. Retrieved 2020-09-05.
  2. ^ Olatunji, Babatunde; Atkinson, Robert (2005). The Beat of My Drum: An Autobiography. ISBN 9781592133543.
  3. ^ Martin, Andrew R.; Matthew Mihalka Ph, D. (30 September 2020). Music around the World: A Global Encyclopedia [3 volumes]: A Global Encyclopedia. ISBN 9781610694995.
  4. ^ "Babatunde Olatunji 1927 – 2003". African Music Encyclopedia. May 2003. Archived from the original on June 5, 2011. Retrieved June 6, 2011.
  5. ^ Gansinger, Martin A. M.; Kole, Ayman (2016). "Nigerian Music and the Black Diaspora in the USA : African Identity, Black Power, and the Free Jazz of the 1960s". Retrieved 2023-10-26.
  6. ^ Dylan, Bob (2014). The lyrics. London: Simon & Schuster. p. 94. ISBN 9781471137099.
  7. ^ She's Gotta Have It (1986) - Soundtracks - IMDb, retrieved 2023-10-26
  8. ^ "B. Olatunji, 75; He Showed Power of African Music". 10 April 2003.
  9. ^ Pareles, Jon (9 April 2003). "Babatunde Olatunji, Drummer, 76, Dies; Brought Power of African Music to U.S." The New York Times.
  10. ^ "The Grammy Winners", New York Times, February 27, 1992
  11. ^ "Hall of Fame". Archived from the original on November 17, 2009. Retrieved 2010-02-16. Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame website


  • 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
  • Foreword to "The Drummer's Path: Moving the Spirit with Ritual and Traditional Drumming" (1992) by Súle Greg Wilson, Destiny Books ISBN 0-89281-359-8
  • 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

External links[edit]