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Olatunji Babatunde


Babatunde Olatunji lived from April 7, 1927 – April 6, 2003 was a Nigerian drummer, educator, social activist and recording artist

Olatunji was also 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.

Olatunji 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 too numerous to list here.

Babatunde Olatunji was born 1927 in the small village of Ajido, Nigeria, about forty miles from Lagos, the capital of the country. This small fishing and trading town amplified the ebb and flow of the seasons through the sounds of drumming that echoed through the nights.

As a child, Olatunji accompanied his great aunt Tanyin to hear the drums – hollowed out from trees and covered with the skin of goats – punctuate the lives of his people. The drummers celebrated every occasion, proclaimed the coming of local politicians, evoked the dreams and aspirations of their people. The drumbeat of his childhood became the life blood of his adult experience as Olatunji grew and traveled throughout the world popularizing the music of his Yoruban heritage.

While still in Africa in the late ’40s, the ever resourceful Olatunji read in Reader’s Digest about the Rotary International Foundation scholarships offered to youths from war-affected countries. By 1950, Olatunji and his cousin were each awarded a scholarship and were on their way to America to attend school in Atlanta, Georgia. Olatunji came to the U.S. determined to succeed in the international arena, at the time he had no aspirations to be a musician.

In 1954, after graduating from Atlanta’s Moorehouse College with a degree in Diplomacy, Olatunji moved to New York to begin a Political Science postgraduate program in Public Administration at New York University. Throughout his American education he had a unique perspective on the cultural divides between black and white Americans. Early on he realized that music, drumming in particular, had the ability to break down the long-established cultural divisions within the “Melting Pot” that America was thought to be in those days. These sorts of insights were the motivating factor that brought Olatunji to begin performing the drumming of his Yoruba ancestors.

Olatunji recorded with many other prominent musicians (often credited as “Michael Olatunji”), including Cannonball Adderley (on his African Waltz (1961) 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” as recorded on the album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

 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.

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 from 1985 until shortly before his death in Salinas, California from diabetes in 2003, on the day before his 76th birthday.

©VisionThought 2010. All Rights Reserved.

*Information was compiled from various sources.

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2 Responses to “Olatunji Babatunde”

  1. Did you go to school in California? I recognise your name, I just can’t remember from where.

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