Freedom: Babatunde Olatunji

Rex Weyler

by Rex Weyler

On April 6, 2003, the great ambassador of African music, Babatunde Olatunji, passed on, one day shy of seventy-six, in Monterey, California.

The following morning, I looked out over English Bay in Vancouver, a second home for Baba, and recalled the undying rhythms he left in this city, which we still hear in those triplets and twelve-eight grooves in drum circles at Spanish Banks every summer.

Baba, a global citizen, lived in New York and had many second homes: Cortes Island, Big Sur, Denver, Santa Fe, Tulsa, London, Paris, and so forth. With Baba, the drumming always honored our highest spirit, everything holy and good in us. Being around Baba induced a state of grace. Learning and helping out, knowing who you were and what your values were, came naturally around him. He was like a father or grandfather to everyone in his sphere.

While his Nigerian homeland fell into the hands of bullies and thieves, he toured the world and spread love and forgiveness, with song, wild bell rhythms, and cracking sticks on the way-way-off beat that sent shivers through a thousand spines and probably through the forests and cities themselves.

He played for presidents and kings, figured into Bob Dylan lyrics, and his spirit still resonates in the children, who danced in the corners of his workshops and then grew up to fulfill their own dreams of being a real drummer. He was a vision of Mahatma Gandhi and Miles Davis in the body of a giant.

I still recall that voice that could split the molecules of the air and open some great emptiness that held all our failures and our greatest moments in a wisp of breeze or a crescendo of pure energy.

Akwaaba! Ya yea yea, ya yea yea, ya yea yea, ya yeah!

Babatunde Olatunji was born in 1927 in Ajido, Nigeria, forty miles from the capital Lagos, a fishing village on the south-facing coast of North Africa, looking across the Bight of Benin. In the tragic history of our civilization, this region is known as the Slave Coast, from which British, Dutch, French, and Portuguese ships carried millions of innocents off to death and terror.

You could not know Baba without knowing how aware he was of humanity’s suffering. The man’s public message encouraged celebration and love, but he carried the tragedies of his people in his heart, bravely.

Baba once told me that as a child, he could scarcely remember not hearing the drum rhythms that echoed all day, and by which he fell asleep at night. His great aunt Tanyin took him to hear the players and watch the dancers, and he fell in love with rhythm.

However, the young boy who would be a drummer, lived in a nation of turmoil, controlled by the British Nigeria Regiment, an arm of the London War Office. When Baba was three years old, the Regiment violently suppressed a revolt by Igbo women near his village. The government taxed villagers to pay for their own repression. The people complained of atrocities by out-of-control recruits. The British regiments drafted young Nigerian boys and held them in army barracks not much better than prisons. The young Olatunji stayed in school, studied, and played the drums. In 1948, he read a Reader’s Digest story about scholarships for children in war-torn countries. He and his cousin applied, both won scholarships, and he headed for America with his Yoruban heritage and music, which now echoes in every corner of the world and stands as a testament to what a single person of vision might achieve.

Olatunji studied at Morehouse College in Atlanta in the 1950s, where he witnessed both racist repression and democratic opportunity. He became student body president. He moved north to New York University and studied political science, paid for by his performances and teaching. Jazz innovators such as John Coltrane and Yusef Lateef became students at the Olatunji Center for African Music in Harlem. John Hammond, with a legendary ear for musical talent, produced Olatunji’s first recordings. Baba, three renowned African drummers, and nine female vocalists created layers of rhythm and harmony never before heard in the West, based on the songs and cult rhythms he learned in Ajido.

Make no mistake: This music appeared revolutionary to western ears dominated by four-four time and harmonic thirds and fifths. Sophisticated jazz and classical artists knew what they were hearing, but they had not heard it like this before.

The title song on this album, Jin-Go-Lo-Ba, would become the root of Santana’s first hit song Jingo. The voices of the drums and singers create a musical conversation:

Jin-Go oo oo Jin Go-Lo-Ba Jin-Go oo oo Jing Go-Lo-Ba

Lo-ba-ba Lo-ba-ba Lo-ba-ba Loba!

Babatunde Olatunji, drummingOnce Olatunji had recorded the music, he told the Columbia bosses that he wanted to tour elementary schools nationally to promote the album. The suits and haircuts at Columbia thought he was nuts. “What are you going to the schools for?” For the kids, he told them. When he said he was calling the album Drums of Passion, the p.r. flaks thought that risqué for children. Keep in mind, this is 1959. The tour received no promotional support from Columbia. Olatunji did it on his own until the Organization for Childhood Education, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the New York Board of Education, sponsored him and sent him to perform at schools in Queens, Long Island, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx. He later expanded across America and around the world. By circumventing the music industry and trusting the power of direct contact, Drums of Passion became an unprecedented international hit, selling five million copies. This recording launched what we now call World Music, inspired the jazz world, and turned heads in rock and folk music communities. On young Dylan’s Freewheeling album he adlibs: “What I want to know Mr. Football Man, is what do you do about Martin Luther King? Willie Mays? OLATUNJI?”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also a Morehouse graduate, invited Olatunji to tour with him. King had skipped both the ninth and twelfth grades, and had entered Morehouse at fifteen. He and the Nigerian, from two very different worlds, became friends and leading voices in the civil rights movement.

When hand drummer Papa Ladji Camara came to America with Les Ballet Africains, he met Olatunji and stayed. He introduced Baba to the djembe drum, worn around the neck, which Olatunji soon mastered and used to expand his vast, layered sound. In 1964 Olatunji performed at the African Pavilion at the New York World Fair and used the money to open the Olatunji Center for African Culture in Harlem. Here, in 1971, Gordy Ryan met Baba.

Ryan had been traveling in South America for a year, learning Latin rhythms and Arica rituals. When he got stuck at the Lima, Peru airport, because he couldn’t pay for the overweight new drums he had picked up, he played drums in the airport to make some money. Two African-Americans stopped by to listen and later told Ryan: “We know where you guys need to go. The Olatunji Centre. It’s really happening there. Dancing and drumming every day, all day.” Two weeks later Ryan began dance lessons at the Center in New York. He learned the African grooves through dance and became an apprentice drummer in the company. “If you learn every rhythm we play,” Baba told him, “you’ve got a job.” Ryan trained on the djembe, ashikos, and learned the dynamic 12/8 bell rhythms played on the bass drum, the djun-djun. He served as Olatunji’s collaborator and companion for three decades.

In 1980, Olatunji returned to Nigeria to enter politics, to try to save his people from the post-colonial horror that had visited them. He returned to New York a year later, broken-hearted, and told Ryan: “I can not be an honest person and be a politician.”

In the meantime, Ryan had traveled to Vancouver, Canada to teach Arica and drumming. When Ryan showed Baba pictures of Vancouver, the Nigerian drummer sighed. The seaside city reminded him of his boyhood home in Ajido. “Man, I’m coming with you,” he announced.

They toured British Columbia for a month in 1983, and Baba returned to peak form. He told Ryan, “We have to play our own music.” For a month, Babatunde Olatunji began to compose music again. Ryan sensed that the music was back. “He’s determined,” Ryan told his friends “to make music his politics.” Baba, Ryan, the dancers, and drummers returned to New York and reassembled the group: Babatunde Olatunji and the Drums of Passion. The music and the teaching have not stopped since. Baba began playing with musicians such as The Grateful Dead and Carlos Santana. Baba and Ryan returned to Vancouver each summer, rehearsed, and recorded new material at an old studio on Main Street.

In 1989 they arrived on Cortes Island, where I then lived, to give a drumming workshop. They seemed like angels from another dimension. They brought colour and warmth and their Rasta friend Sanga. Ryan and his wife Zoe – a British dancer who had mastered the African dances, drums, and shekere – stayed and built a home with local carpenters David Shipway and Mark Appleyard. From the beaches, they scavenged logs and made djembes, ashikos, and djun-djuns. Gordy Ryan’s handmade drums are considered among the finest in the world. Ryan and his friends built a dance and drum hall on the Island, Olatunji Hall. Baba returned every year. The troupe taught local drummers and dancers of all ages and eventually formed the group Island Rhythm.

Mickey Hart invited Baba and Ryan to play on his 1991 Planet Drum, along with fellow Nigerian Sikiru Adepoju, Brazilians Airto Moreira and Flora Purim, Indians Zakir Hussain and T.H. Vikkuí Vinayakram, and Carlos Santana. World music was alive.

“Rhythm is the soul of life,” Baba often said. “The whole universe revolves in rhythm. Everything and every human action revolves in rhythm.” Once, when I felt disappointed by the actions of others, Baba told me, “Everyone’s heart is good. Give up your point of view, and you find your heart.”

Now, from the kitchen, as I write, I can hear my wife Lisa singing the Freedom song, which had once become an anthem for the civil rights movement: Oooo Oo Ohooodo hiye freedom … Oooo Oo Ohooodo hiye freedom … Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeee Ee Eheedi Eheedi Eheedi Eheedi Yaiee Yai-eh … ooo yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa … lai-yea lai-yea lai-yea …