Babatunde Olatunji, the greatest African drummer. Photo by John Werner.
Gay Plair Cobb
Dr. ML King, Jr.
His name was Michael Babatunde Olatunji, and he is considered to be the greatest African drummer ever to step on the shores of the United States of America. During his 50-year stay in the U.S. Babatunde Olatunji established himself as the leading cultural ambassador of the continent of Africa in America. He passed away on April 6, 2003, one day short of his 75th birthday.
During April, pounding drums and blaring music can be heard throughout the world in celebration of the birthday of this man who left an indelible signature on world music.
At Ashkenaz night club in Berkeley this Saturday, April 20, a event has been organized by Sikiru Adepoju and the musical groups African Show Boyz, Sankofa Africa, Rhythm Addicts, Val Serrant, Giovanni Hidalgo and the Kouroube Kouroube Dance Company. Olatunji had laid his hands on Sikiru and asked him to continue his drumming and musical legacy.
Michael Babatunde Olatunji arrived in the U.S. on a Rotary Club Scholarship to attend Morehouse College. After his graduation he moved to New York University to study public administration.
While studying at NYU he formed a small percussion group to earn money, and with the rhythms of fate, he found his path and true calling with his drums.
It was not an accident of life or history that the spirit of Michael Babatunde Olatunji migrated into the diaspora world of the African in captivity. His name Babatunde is a statement and a purpose – in Yoruba culture Babatunde means a reincarnated soul.
It was not accidental that Babatunde Olatunji continued the diasporic dialogue popularized by many other poets, musicians, scholars and groups such as the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, those who yearned for a connection to Africa. He came to America as a forerunner to those African leaders, such as Kwame Nkrumah, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Leopold Senghor who praised and adopted his music as the coda for their political liberation movements from European colonialism. His drumming was also adopted by those who were marching and humming the Negro spiritual freedom songs of the Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King, also a former Morehouse student.
It was in Harlem that the “Passionate Drummer” Babatunde Olatunji met “Jazz Messenger” John Coltrane. Together, imbued with the spirit, rhythms and ancestral residues of their African ancestors, they founded the Olatunji Cultural Center.
In 1959, Olatunji released his first of six recordings on the Columbia label, called Drums of Passion.
While in Harlem he and his wife Amy Bush also adopted the Plair family as part of their extended American family. Gay Plair Cobb, a bass player and wife of the Post publisher, is the daughter the late Mildred and Theodore Plair. The Plair family was designated as the “Godparents” to Kwame Olatunji, the oldest son who was named after Nkrumah and died in Liberia.
Olatunji said, “I have thought about the healing power of the drum for many years and I have come to the philosophy of the drum which says that it is a very special kind of trinity. First the tree, which is used for the body of the drum, contains a living spirit. Great care is taken to make sure that the wood of the drum is alive. In many parts of the world, especially in Africa, prayers are said, songs are sung, and rituals are performed before a tree is cut down. It is necessary to recognize that the Spirit make the tree grow so deep, spreading its roots far and wide. Second, there is a spirit in the skin of the animal whose skin is used for the drum, be it that of a goat, a cow a deer or a buffalo. The skin contains a spirit that is still alive. An when you join these spirits together with the spirit of the person playing the drum, the result is a trinity, an irresistible force, a balance that gives the drum its healing power.”
And Baba Olatunji spoke all these thoughts in his book, “The Beat Of My Drum: An Autobiography” (2005).
“Probably the most important aspect of the drum is its use as a healing instrument but do the spirit of the wood and the spirit of the skin and the spirit of the person playing it make the healing process happen?”
“Where I come from, we say that rhythm is the soul of life. The whole universe revolves in rhythm. When we get out of rhythm, that’s when we get into trouble. We are in rhythm, or we not in rhythm – the rhythm of life, the rhythm of relationships. Because of its rhythmic nature, because it helps keep us in rhythm, the drum, next to the human voice, is our most important, most sacred instrument.”