Babatunde Olatunji was a Grammy award winning virtuoso drummer, producer, social activist, educator and recording artist who first rose to prominence in the late 1950s.
Born in Ajido, a small fishing village near Lagos, the former capital of Nigeria, Baba was educated at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia after receiving a Rotary Scholarship to the school. At Morehouse, he began a small percussion group to earn money on the side while he continued his studies.
in 1957 while pursuing graduate studies at NYU, Baba came to the attention of Columbia Records A&R man John Hammond, who eventually signed him to the label. In 1959 Baba released Drums of Passion, the first of six records on the Columbia label, which became a major hit, selling millions of copies worldwide and served as the introduction for many Americans to world music for the first time.
Early career milestones included performances at Radio City Music Hall, the World's Fair in New York City, and TV appearances on programs like the Tonight Show, the Mike Douglas show and the Bell Telephone Hour.
Additionally, he performed with his group at concerts and at civil rights rallies led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
After the group appeared with an orchestra at Radio City Music Hall, Baba was signed to Columbia Records. He secured foundation grants to tour schools. Among the students who were impressed by his performances — dressed in African robes and playing hand-hewn goat-hide drums — was Mickey Hart, who would go on to join the Grateful Dead and later recharge Baba's career.
Baba wrote many musical compositions including scores for the Broadway and Hollywood productions "Raisin In The Sun". He also assisted his fellow Morehouse alumni, Bill Lee, with the music for "She's Gotta Have It", a hit film written, produced, directed and starring Mr. Lee's son, Spike Lee.
In 1966, Baba's dedication to the preservation and communication of African culture led him to establish his "dream", the Olatunji Center of African Culture in the heart of Harlem, New York. At the Center, Baba made a commitment to education by providing low cost classes in a wide range of cultural subjects to adults and children. His expertise in the area of African music and dance led to his direction of educational television series, co-authoring the book, "African Musical Instruments, Their Origin and Use", as well as acting, as a consultant and authority for numerous museum shows, documentaries, interviews and publications.
In 1991, Baba was a partner in forming the drum and percussion ensemble "Planet Drum" with Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead. "Planet Drum" produced a recording of the same name that has been a best-selling recording on commercial charts. The ensemble also had a 15-city tour of the US, playing to sold out audiences at such venues as Carnegie Hall in New York City. The "Planet Drum" CD also received a Grammy Award in 1991.
Some of Baba's later released recordings were, "Celebrate Freedom, Justice and Peace", "Healing Rhythms, Songs and Chants", including the 1998 Grammy nominated release on Chesky Records of "Love Drum Talk".
Baba was a member of the faculties at both the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, and the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. where he continued to pursue his strong commitment to disseminating knowledge of African culture through teaching of traditional drumming, dancing and chanting for people of all ages.
In 1996 Baba was named the Impresario of the Ghana Dance Ensemble, one of two National Dance Companies of Ghana. Through an agreement with the University of Accra in Ghana, Baba led yearly workshops at the International Centre for African Music and Dance. Also in 1996, Olatunji received an Honorary Doctorate from Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York for his outstanding service and contribution to the arts.
Baba passed away in 2003 from complications from Diabetes in Esalen in Big Sur, California.
The family of Babatunde Olatunji and The Drummers and Dancers of Passion continue their vision of the shared experience of joy, energy and exhilaration stimulated by the sounds and rhythms of the Universal Language from the deep tradition of African drumming, dancing and chanting.