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African Legends

Babatunde Olatunji

By Jeff Tamarkin
Published November 8, 2006

The importance of Babatunde Olatunji is incalculable. At a time when Westerners were exposed to almost nothing of African culture, Olatunji entered the mass consciousness with Drums Of Passion.

The importance of Babatunde Olatunji in spreading awareness of African music throughout the world is incalculable. At a time when Westerners were exposed to almost nothing of African culture, Olatunji—he went solely by his surname early in his career—entered the mass consciousness with an album called Drums Of Passion. Recorded in 1959, it remains, with over five million copies sold, one of the most successful African albums of all time. That Olatunji lived and recorded in the United States at the time is immaterial—for many, he was the sound and face of Africa.

Born in 1927 in Ajido, a small fishing village in Nigeria, Olatunji came to America in 1950 to study political science in Atlanta. In 1954 he transferred to New York University Graduate School of Public Administration. Already an accomplished drummer, he arranged for the 66-piece orchestra African Fantasia to perform at Radio City Music Hall. The show caught the ear of the legendary Columbia Records talent scout John Hammond, who heard in him a sound that begged to be shared.


Drums Of Passion, the first African album to be recorded in the U.S., and the first in stereo, was highly influential in intellectual and artistic circles (John Coltrane was one who was moved by it and Santana’s “Jingo” came from it.). Its drum-and-vocal chants may seem slick or even inauthentic by today’s standards, but there is no mistaking the album’s role in the nascent black pride movement—even many African-Americans had never heard the music of the motherland until Olatunji, a man transplanted into the heart of American segregation at the dawn of the Civil Rights era, came along.


He was hardly prolific over the years but his contribution to the dissemination of African percussion-based music continued. He founded and taught at the Center for African Culture in Harlem in the late 1960s. He also remained active in the peace movement throughout his life—in 1996, he was responsible for assembling thousands of drummers at the Washington Monument, prior to Bill Clinton’s election, to participate in Drum Dance and Pray for Peace.       


One major Olatunji booster was the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart, who produced him for Rykodisc’s “The World” series. Olatunji died in 2003.

Recommended Recordings


Drums Of Passion (Columbia/Legacy)

Drums Of Passion: The Beat (Rykodisc)