History will show that 1959 was officially a quiet year in the wave of independence movements that swept across sub-Saharan Africa beginning with Ghana in 1957, in that no nations formally severed their colonial ties that year. But the record is deceiving, as the groundwork for additional declarations was being laid across the continent. Seventeen nations established their independence in 1960, beginning with Cameroon on 1 January and followed by (in chronological order) Togo, Mali, Senegal, Madagascar, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Chad, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Nigeria and Mauritania.
Across the water, there was an inkling of what was afoot in Africa within the nascent civil rights movement. Louis Armstrong and other prominent jazz musicians had gone on State Department-sponsored tours of Africa earlier in the decade, and the young Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Ghana for its independence celebration (as part of an American delegation which included then-Vice President Richard Nixon; King is said to have invited Nixon to Alabama, “where we are seeking the same kind of freedom.”). But the biggest connection of the era between black America and Africa may have been forged not by Dr. King, but by another Morehouse man.
After graduating Morehouse College in Atlanta, Babatunde Olatunji moved to New York City for post-graduate studies in public administration. Like many grad students then and now, he found himself short on cash, so he turned to making music for extra income. But not just any music, and certainly not the music in the Gotham air at the time. Olatunji was born in Nigeria, and drew upon his childhood drumming in Yoruban festivals to put together a percussion ensemble. The group became much more than a part-time gig: he ended up giving a 1957 concert at Radio City Music Hall with a 66-piece ensemble, which got him signed to Columbia by none other than the legendary producer John Hammond.
In the late summer and fall of ’59, Olatunji entered a recording studio with three other percussionists and nine singers. The group recorded eight pieces of hypnotic, propulsive jams derived from the leader’s Yoruban experience. The resulting album, Drums of Passion, opened ears all over America upon its release in 1960. Never before had African music been presented with such unadorned dignity and respect – by the biggest record label in the land, no less, not a small specialty concern working the limited ethnic market.
The music was different but not altogether off-putting, and drew listeners into its spell. Its authenticity separated it from the kitschy global soundscapes popularized by Martin Denny and Esquivel. And the recording’s production values added both depth and sheen to the performance, making it feel less like a geography lesson and more like entertainment.
But while it wouldn’t have gone on to sell millions of copies had it not been entertaining, for many of its fans Drums of Passion represented something far more profound: the first tangible evidence of a direct connection between American culture and African roots many did not even imagine existed. Not that Olantunji’s music was the actual mother lode from which all African culture sprung, but listeners discovered links between its grooves and the rhythms that propelled black American music. And for audiences sensing a connection between the civil rights movement and the African independence wave, this was more than just a record: Drums of Passion was one of the first pop culture products to allow black Americans to feel like they owned a tangible piece of the motherland.
Olatunji immediately joined the New York artistic cognoscenti, adding his drumming to jazz dates including We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. His music would be covered by John Coltrane and Carlos Santana, among others. Santana remembers the effect of seeing people in a Bay Area park dancing to “Jin-Go-Lo-Ba” and recast the piece as “Jingo”, a highlight of his band’s 1969 debut album and a staple of their early live shows. Coltrane gave what turned out to be his last live performance at the Olatunji Center for African Culture in New York (captured on a low-quality recording and released as The Olatunji Concert: His Last Live Performance by Impulse).
Never one to miss an obvious tie-in, Columbia has released a two-disc deluxe edition of Drums just in time for its 50th anniversary, pairing it with its 1966 sequel More Drums of Passion and fleshing both discs out with recordings made with all-star jazz session players during Olatunji’s time with the label. As the musician who brought African percussion to worldwide pop audiences, his place in history is secure.
Olatunji influenced virtually every genre of pop music; deep inside the grooves of Drums of Passion one can hear beats that would be distilled a generation later within many a classic hip-hop jam. By the time he ascended to the heavens in 2003, he had become, for all intents and purposes, the first musician to imagine, and help bring about, a world of modern music connected by ancient, timeless rhythms. Not bad for a former grad student.
But let’s not give Olatunji all the credit for teasing the links between the simultaneous black freedom movements in America and Africa. Another important link came from, of all places, the South Side of Chicago.