Columbia/Legacy has just released a glorious two-disc edition of Babatunde Olatunji’s 1959 masterwork, Drums of Passion, one of the most profoundly influential records ever. Before Passion there was no such thing as “world” music, just the industry of “exotica” records from guys like Les Baxter and Martin Denny, who created the music and ambience of “faraway lands” in an air-conditioned recording studio. There were scholarly field recordings for anthropological purposes, but when John Hammond signed Olatunji, a Nigerian drummer, it opened a portal to an entire world of beat, rhythm, passion, spirituality, and movement.
Olatunji made a string of albums for Columbia through the ’60s; the Legacy edition includes 1966’s More Drums of Passion and a slew of bonus tracks. He became an ambassador of African drumming and culture, and his acolytes include everyone from Cannonball Adderley to Afrika Bambaataa, Carlos Santana to Mickey Hart.
I had the honor of meeting Olatunji shortly after Hart and he took home the Grammy for Planet Drum in 1992. He was leading a drumming workshop in Santa Cruz, California. Rumors of “MICKEY’S GONNA BE THERE!” among Deadheads caused a much greater turnout than expected. Since we hadn’t registered (whoops) and they could only fit so many people in the classroom, we were turned away, but Olatunji told us to wait outside. After the class he came out and led us in a drum circle. We drummed and sang and chanted and danced for almost two hours. We didn’t even notice that Hart wasn’t there after all. It was truly a beautiful day.
While the albums in and of themselves, especially the Columbia stuff, were fairly slick and heavily produced, in my opinion the best expression of Olatunji’s music and spirit is when he’s leading others on his djembÃ©. Just hands on drums, sharing soul and spirit.
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