Thursday, April 10, 2003
San Francisco Groundbreaking Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji, who helped introduce the power and intricacy of African music in the United States, has died. He was 75.
Olatunji died Sunday at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital, a nursing supervisor said. Olatunji, who had been admitted March 25, lived at the Esalen Institute in nearby Big Sur.
The cause of death was not released by the hospital, but The New York Times quoted a daughter of Olatunji as saying he died of complications from advanced diabetes.
His 1959 album, "Drums of Passion," was the first album of African drumming recorded in stereo in an American studio. It introduced a generation to African music, said world music critic J. Poet of San Francisco.
"He planted a seed that gave birth to the whole interest in African music in the United States," Poet said. "Before him the drum was always kind of mixed into the background. After Olatunji, the drum just really came blasting out at you."
Olatunji's deft slaps on the djembe and junjun drums infused American black culture with a sense of artistic pride in traditional African music, Poet said.
Olatunji went on to found the Center for African Culture, based in Harlem, in the late 1960s. He taught drummers and other artists, such as John Coltrane. Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart co-founded the musical troupe Planet Drum with Olatunji and credits him as a major influence.
"We spoke the same language," Hart said. "It was about rhythm, the drums, and he was the godfather of this whole movement of communal drumming."
Olatunji was born in Ajido, a small fishing and trading village. His band of drummers, singers and dancers evoked both the village's music and its masquerades, with figures dancing in elaborate costumes.
Olatunji studied at New York University and soon formed an African-style ensemble that became his full-time occupation.
Hart recalled Olatunji's commanding voice and rhythms as the base for his popularity. Hart said the feeling he got from first hearing Olatunji's music has stayed with him.
Olatunji's most recent album, "Love Drum Talk," was released in 1997 and was nominated for a Grammy Award. He is survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters.