America Is Still In Love With Lord Of African
In America, Nigeria’s Babatunde Olatunji who died a decade ago continues to be celebrated as a super star, foremost percussionist from Africa, an institution, the custodian of African culture and teacher. He used to be a source of inspiration and a rallying point to jazz musicians as well as lovers of African culture and tradition. The vacuum he left in America is yet to be filled despite the fact that he is not recognized in his own country, let alone deserving of any accolade.
Olatunji promoted the rich cultural heritage of Africa in America for upwards of six decades. He was signed on by Blue Note, a top jazz record company as one of its top stars way back 1959, recording drums and voices with origin from the culture of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. He was signed on to Blue Note along with Solomon Ilori, another enterprising Nigerian whose musical career was short lived.
Olatunji later shifted to Cheeky Records where he was held in high esteem, providing ebullient ensembles of guitarists and singers to augment his percussion and give his recording a heart-pounding sound. A legend and Grammy Award winning percussionist-composer, Olatunji was the top of the bill at SOB’s, a popular Brazilian flavoured night club, and venue of a multi- cultural festival at Varrick Street, New York.
A yearly event, Olatunji stormed the place with highly spirited African drumming alongside Latin American Cuban and Brazilian cultural sounds, whose dimensions usually amounted to ‘world music’.
A downright and honest artist, Olatunji did not claim to be an innovator in the sense of creating musical dimensions and introducing new trends. He did not parade himself as a musicologist capable of analyzing the polytonal dynamics and significance of African music from an academic background. His was the performance and presentation of African cultural music in its natural setting exactly the way African ancestors bequeathed it to their children.
An authority on African cultural affairs, his shows usually took on the rituals associated with African shrines, chanting incantations and performing all kinds of rites. He was known, for instance, for spilling blood from slaughtered animals as a mark of sacrifices to appease the gods before the commencement of his shows which were usually colourful and reflective of the true tradition of Africa.
Olatunji’s drumming and singing did not have any fusions whatsoever with Western cultural elements; and this is why he endeared himself to foreign audiences, especially jazz musicians who were looking for new rhythms for improvisational interventions. Ironically, it was for this same reason that he was disliked by Nigerians and Africans who have a preference for Western-oriented music. He was disliked because he did not fuse the drum and sekere for instance with rock, hip hop or soul music.
Babatunde Olatunji was doing exactly what Yusuf Olatunji would do at home here with sakara music; Haruna Isola and Ayinla Omowura with Apala; Dauda Epo Akara with Awurebe; Alhaji Mamman Shatta with Kalangu; Ibrahim Nahab with Goge. These are some of our great musicians that have been forgotten and the idioms that have almost disappeared from our cultural landscape because of lack of promotion and patronage. But these rhythms are being sought after in America by all the creative musicians – Randy Weston, Branford Marsales and all – who went wherever Olatunji performed. He was a source of inspiration to the late John Coltrane, who in fact dedicated a song Twyi to Olatunji in one of his albums. While Coltrane lived, he performed regularly at the Olatunji Centre, blowing his horn uncompromisingly, profusely over heathendom African rhythms.
Bill Milkowski, a frontline jazz commentator, writer on cultural affairs and foremost contributor to Jazz Times, the authoritative magazine on jazz and black music in America used the opportunity of Olatunji’s release of Love Drum Talk to examine his essence and valuable contributions to African music in its November 1997 edition. Said he, “Although he was forced to abandon his Olatunji Centre (the site of John Coltrane’s last public performance in May of 1967), in 1968 Nigeria-born percussion master, Babatunde Olatunji continued to spread the gospel of Africa and its varied contributions to world culture. He then began to conduct clinics and workshops at such enlightened enclaves as the Esalen institute in Rhinebeck, New York”. And in an intimate encounter, Olatunji told him, “I’ve been going to those places for 15 years, but I’m never doing anything here in this big city.”
But he eventually made it big when his club became home to blacks in diaspora in addition to devotees from all over America, even as he had his audience riveted till the end of all his shows with cultural practices from Africa, especially Nigeria. Olatunji played congas of different sizes, sometimes using the different tonalities of talking drums to pass messages across to an enthralled audience.
In the beginning, he had a tough time consolidating his art and overcoming a credibility problem aggravated by scathing criticisms from Ghana’s Kofi Ghanaba who was then called Guy Warren. Both of them introduced authentic African drumming to America; and apparently, they were rivals. While Ghanaba, who was obviously more musically educated fused his approach with jazz even as he worked with the likes of Thelonius Monk and other jazz giants who were astounded by the level of his art, Olatunji merely played straight – ahead African percussion that was devoid of any fusion; and he seemed to be more popular, appealing to jazz and non jazz audiences. The people loved it. However, Ghanaba refused to acknowledge Olatunji’s art, even describing him as a ‘fraud’ in some of his interviews. But the man’s popularity increased, reaching a crescendo as he added a fresh laurel to his accomplishments in the 90s with the release of the album, Love Drum Talk which received favourable comments from critics, aside from selling appreciably well.
He was not just a percussionist; he was a total artist, a culture advocate who profusely promoted the tradition and culture of the Yoruba speaking people of Nigeria.
Olatunji’s other means of teaching people with his positive message was through recordings. His offering of Love Drum Talk was a powerfully infectious meditation on the nature of indiscriminate love that grooved as it taught. Recorded, using 24-hit technology, Love Drum Talk was part of a continuum that began in 1959 with Olatunji’s land mark, Drums of Passion, a seminal world beat recording that has sold millions over the years. Like many of his classic recordings, Love Drum Talk attempts to emphasize the positive aspects of humanity by focusing on what people have in common:
“Take a look at what is happening in our society,” Olatunji said. “People are emphasizing the negative. The movies are not preaching anything about reverence for life, respect for elders. They preach pure violence. This is what prevails on TV as well. Whereas we can be using the new discoveries, the new inventions to really increase the quality of human behaviour. And when you emphasize the positive aspects of a person, that’s what will prevail.
“Music has to have a message,” he continued. “It has to have some kind of inspiration. It has to be encouraging and tantalizing. I play my music so that people can jump up for joy and dance, so people can feel better and they can really put their problems aside, turn a new page and have a new lease of life. This is healing music.” And he delivered the cure once again with Love Drum Talk.
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