Babatunde Olatunji

Babatunde Olatunji


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Olatunji performed at the African Pavilion at the New York World Fair where he was able to raise enough

money to open the Olatunji Center for African Culture (OCAC) in Harlem, offering classes in African

dance, music, language, folklore, and history. The NEA help to fund Olatuni’s OCAC teacher

and student training programs which went to all over the schools in the New York tri-state area,



Babatunde Olatunji

Drummer, 76, Dies

Brought Power of African Music to U.S.


At 2 pm on Sunday, April 27th, there will be a funeral procession in  Harlem for Babatunde Olatunji that will begin at Madison and 125th and  proceed west, concluding at Unity Funeral Home on 126th and 8th  Avenue.  On Monday, April 28th, at Riverside Church (490 Riverside  Drive, Manhattan – near Columbia University), the viewing will start  at 9 am  and the funeral service will commence at 11 am.  At 1 pm, a  reception celebrating Baba’s life through music and dance is planned  at Grant’s Tomb (roughly adjacent to Riverside Church),  involving  many,  like Max Roach and Bill Lee, from the music community.

I hope that you will personally attend the events to celebrate his  life and myriad contributions.  Please circulate the details of the  events as widely as possible among your colleagues and friends, and  encourage them to ATTEND!  It is a supreme irony that Baba’s  accomplishments were not as well known among his people as they ought  to have been; particularly for those of us in the US, who have  benefited unknowingly from his pioneering cultural ambassadorship, we  must not lose this opportunity to pay our respects. 

Updated details on the celebratory events will be available at


Dayo Ogunyemi

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Rhythm is the soul of life. The whole universe revolves in rhythm. Everything and every human action revolves in rhythm.— Babatunde Olatunji


Michael Babatunde Olatunji the Nigerian drummer, bandleader and teacher who was a tireless ambassador for African music and culture in the United States, died on Sunday April 6, 2003, just ten days after being admitted to Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital (Salinas, California), of complications due to his long struggle with the effects of diabetes. He was 76 and lived at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. Olatunji had a profound impact on everyone who knew him and everyone who had been touched by his love for the drum and the African culture that nurtured that love.

Olatunji, with over 3,000 performances to his credit, accumulated numerous awards and accolades. A few of his outstanding achievements include being presented with The Key to New York City from Mayor Ed Koch and several honorary degrees, leading the World Drummers March for Peace at the National Black Arts Festival and having a pre-recorded positive message for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. In 2002 he opened the ceremonies and was inducted in The National Black Sports and Entertainment Hall of Fame in Harlem. He was featured in the WTBS television special “The Arc of the Spirit” with Avery Brooks as well as several other related films and videos. Babatunde Olatunji’s autobiography is projected to be published by Temple University Press in the near future. .

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1927 — Born in the small village of Ajido, Nigeria, about forty miles from Lagos, the capital of the country. 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.


1950 —  Olatunji and his cousin were each awarded a scholarship and were on their way to America to attend school in Atlanta, Georgia

1954 — After graduating from Atlanta’s Morehouse College with a degree in Diplomacy, Olatunji moved to New York City to begin a Political Science postgraduate program in Public Administration at New York University.  To cover his expenses he started a small drumming and dance groupInsights on the cultural divides between black and white Americans were the motivating factor that brought Olatunji to begin performing the drumming of his Yoruba ancestors.


1957 —  Columbia Records producer John Hammond heard Olatunji performing at Radio City Music Hall at with a 66-piece orchestra. This meeting led directly to the  recording of Drums of Passion            


1959 — Olatunji’s first album Drums of Passion, first album to bring genuine African music to Western ears, released  by Columbia  Records. It became an unprecedented,  worldwide smash hit, selling over five million copies and remains a popular recording.


1963 — Join Martin Luther King for his March on Washington 

1964 —  Olatunji performed at the African Pavilion at the New York World Fair where he was able to raise enough money to open the Olatunji Center for African Culture (OCAC) in Harlem, offering classes in African dance, music, language, folklore, and history. The NEA help to fund Olatuni’s OCAC teacher and student training programs which went to all over the schools in the New York tri-state area, all the way to Long Island. He drummed at civil rights rallies along side Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X and Nelson Mandela, but his musical activism also crossed racial identities as Mickey Hart stated, “He got us white folks into the magical music of Africa. It was irresistible.”


1968 (April 6) — Rudy meets Olatunji along with Queen Mother Moore in Harlem

1993 —  Awarded the All One Tribe Drumming Education Award for his commitment to children, interracial harmony and education.


1996 —  Cultural ambassador Baba Olatunji manifested another of his goals by inviting thousands of drummers to congregate at the Washington Monument, prior to Clinton’s Presidential Election to participate in Drum Dance and Pray for Peace.


1997 —  Love Drum Talk, is last CD released  was nominated for a Grammy Award.

2003  (6 April) —  Passed over to Ancestors.  He is survived by his wife, Amy Bush, one son, two daughters, many grandchildren, nieces and nephews, with family here and in Nigeria including his best  friend and cousin Professor Akiwowo, as well as a world of devoted friends and fans.


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The list of people Olatunji  played with included Carlos Santana, John Coltrane, Tony Vacca, Madou Dembele, Sanga of the Valley (Anthony Francis), Sikiru Adepoju, Gordy Ryan, James Cherry, Arthur Hull, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart who co-founded the musical troupe Planet Drum with Olatunji and credits him as a major influence. They shared credit for the the Best World Music Album Grammy Award in 1991 for the CD Planet Drum.

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“The spirit of the drum is something that you feel but cannot put your hands on, It does something to you from the inside out . . . It hits people in so many different ways. But the feeling is one that is satisfying and joyful. It is a feeling that makes you say to yourself, ‘ I’m glad to be alive today! I’m glad to be part of this world!”—Babatunde Olatunji

Babatunde African Drum Performance / Babatunde Olatunji—Oya (Primitive Fire)

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update 29 December 2011




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