Babatunde Olatunji - ‘Drums of Passion’
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.