From its beginnings as blues and call-and-response field hollers to infusions of gypsy music, Brazilian sambas and hosts of other influences, jazz has remained open to influence from musical traditions around the world.
Even so, Michael Babatude Olatunji’s Drums of Passion (Columbia, 1960) qualified as exotica with its direct channel into the wellsprings of West African rhythm. His desire to play his drums of passion in schools made Columbia very nervous.
So Olatunji toured without support from Columbia, wearing traditional garb and incorporating African dance into his concerts in an effort that mixed authentically virtuoso musicianship with a dash of show business flummery.
Before long, he had captivated audiences around the country, and appeared on Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson. The album eventually sold five million copies, influencing musicians from John Coltrane to Carlos Santana to Herbie Mann to Mickey Hart, with whom he formed Planet Drum.
Olatunji dedicated most of the money he made from album sales and touring to music education, founding the Olatunji Center of African Culture in Harlem. He went on to tour with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, playing drums at rallies connecting with ever more fans.
The reverberations of the musical explosion that Olatunji detonated back in 1960 continued even after his death in 2003 at age 75. Critics today may dispute Olatunji’s preeminence among West-African drummers and point to others with more chops or “authenticity.” But without his influence to open American ears to the contemporary and vital sounds of Africa, the music we take for granted today might well have a very different — and much less interesting — cast.
-Sean Brennan, Host of Compass Points, Thursdays 9-11 PM
from the March edition of KMHD’s Jazz Notes – for the whole newsletter, click here