Ba­batunde Olatunji - ‘Drums of Pas­sion’

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - Donal Di­neen

The back­story of how Ba­batunde Olatunji got to make such a ground­break­ing record is ev­ery bit as mo­men­tous as Drums of Pas­sion it­self. The life that bursts forth from its deep grooves is by no means co­in­ci­den­tal. There are an­cient spir­its at work. The mes­sage be­ing im­parted is on a grand scale. This is the orig­i­nal big mu­sic.

The long road from the tiny Nige­rian vil­lage of Ajido to Ra­dio City Mu­sic Hall in New York City took three decades to travel. He was born in 1927 into the Yoruba tribe who pro­fess al­le­giance to the power of the drum. The dun­dun hour­glass ten­sion drums that form the spine of this record are the heart­beat of his peo­ple’s ver­nac­u­lar. The beat is fun­da­men­tal. It’s the punc­tu­a­tion of the na­tion.

As a child, Ba­batunde at­tended cer­e­monies by Yoruba dun­dun en­sem­bles. The leader is the oniyalu who uses the drum to “talk” by im­i­tat­ing the tonal­ity of the Yoruba. It’s not just about the rhythm, these drums have got some­thing to say.

So the mu­sic was in his veins but out­side forces also played a role in fill­ing Ba­batunde’s head with big dreams and mag­i­cal thoughts. The wire­less had come to ru­ral Nige­ria dur­ing his youth. A whole new world of sound came through short­wave BBC broad­casts. Balmy west African nights were lit up by the sound of Dizzy Gille­spie, Count Basie and Duke Elling­ton. Ba­batunde’s head was turned and he ap­plied for a schol­ar­ship to study po­lit­i­cal sci­ence in the US.

He was still on that path and moon­light­ing as a mu­si­cian when he came to the at­ten­tion of the le­gendary John Ham­mond at the Ra­dio City con­cert in 1958. The man who dis­cov­ered Bil­lie Hol­l­i­day and Aretha Franklin was quick to recog­nise the qual­ity he had stum­bled upon. He signed him to Columbia and pro­duced this mag­i­cal record­ing within a year.

The story the mu­sic tells does jus­tice to its won­der­ful pro­logue. It’s tes­ta­ment to the power of the beat it­self.

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