With his death in April 2003, the obituaries respectfully memorialized the Nigerian expatriate, musician Babatunde Olatunji. Prominently mentioned in those accounts was his 1960 debut album, Drums of Passion, the first recording of African drumming ever produced in America. Unlike anything in the market place of the time, the record also had a long-lasting effect on nearly everyone who heard it. Raw, primal, real African drumming, this record is all about rhythm. While there are chants, shouts, singing, vibrant call-and-response choruses, and words, the focus is on the fluid propulsive drum rhythm that moves it all. This is not the flashy bombast of Gene Krupa drum-kit solo of the time nor does it sound in any way too similar to then familiar sound of congas and bongos in Latin percussion. At the time, this was something entirely different and genuinely unique. Drums of Passion became a surprise hit, welcomed by a music-listening public that seemed starved for the authentic.
Like a sharp diplomat in action on his first outing, Olatunji presented short songs that clocked in at five minutes or under; this was a benign introduction of a totally unknown, heavily drum-centered music to unaccustomed Western ears. The short pieces successfully acquainted the listener to the sound of African music, the likes of which they had never heard before, and without overdoing it. The first cut, a traditional Nigerian tune, is the chugging and swaying “Akiwowo” (“Chant to the Trainman”) with the chant “Eyi lo poro” placed against the rhythmic beat of the “train”, the wheels turned here by drums and the rocking train car is shaken by clacker and djembe. Olatunji’s rich, mellifluous voice soars, and is answered by a chorus of female voices. A charming, happy-sounding song, “Akiwowo” as the very first piece signified movement.
For those who have been exposed to the past two decades of rich offerings of music from other countries, the raw-sounding Drums of Passion may seem like it’s still riding on its early reputation. Aside from sales figures, the initial influence or social impact of a mere recording is often indeterminate, but assumptions can be made if the release is placed firmly in proper historic context. Though the “world” music genre did not exist in the 1950s, “international” music certainly did. But the offerings that found their way into U.S. record shops were pitifully miniscule in number and tended to represent music European-based in origin. The music that most symbolized African music to Americans was the drumming, but authentic representations of that music were seldom even heard at any appreciable length. Aside from ethnomusicological treatises and specialty field recordings, collection items that the majority of the public never had easy access to if they were inclined, there were only the snippets of “African” drums casually encountered in film soundtracks at the Saturday matinee. Much later, Olatunji shared with Jason Gross (http://www.furious.com/perfect/olatunji.html) his original intention: ” I wanted to create the true image of African—not Tarzan or the Hollywood image.”
While it can be argued (as some recently have) that if Drums of Passion debuted now, in the midst of an ongoing world music boom, the record would receive a much tougher critical examination in terms of its “authenticity”, that’s best left for logicians and drum students to argue. It happened way back then, remember? We got to hear African hand drumming without having to travel to Africa to do it. At the time, Drums of Passion seemed as close to authentic as it ever was going to get.
Drums of Passion made major inroads because it appealed to a particular set of listener—there were also those people who were hungry for the ethnic or authentic, whose very taste in music was curious if not outright adventurous, and who were inclined to explore the progressive and forward reaching. Remember, this is placed far back in time at the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., before Olatunji marched on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King, and decades before Alex Haley’s Roots or the burgeoning of Afrocentric consciousness.
Olatunji was not merely a musician, but a man with a vision, who wanted nothing more than to share African music and culture, especially with black Americans, many of whom at this point in history tended to feel utterly disconnected from Africa. He began by starting up workshops to teach music and culture. When just starting out on his mission, he taught drumming in New York on the weekends after a grueling auto commute mid-week to lead his workshops in Ohio and Massachusetts. In 1967, Olatunji finally rented a loft in Harlem as the more permanent home for the Olatunji Center of African Culture, where he regularly taught for the following 30 years. John Coltrane was an early convert to Olatunji’s music (featuring him on several albums of his own) as well as a supporter of Olatunji’s ideas.
For all the major splash of Drums of Fire and millions of records sold, Olatunji later admitted in interview he was so excited at the time of signing his first record contract that he neglected to “dot his i’s and cross his t’s”. He never saw a dime of royalties from the millions-selling album for 28 years. Coltrane early on became a regular benefactor of Olatunji’s vision, providing $250 a month towards paying the rent on Olatunji’s Center.
It can’t be stressed enough how unusual Drums of Passion was at the time of its initial issue. Based just on the sales figures, with this release alone Olatunji accomplished what he said he had set out to do, to introduce African music to people outside of Africa. While Olatunji may not have invented “world music”, his debut album marked an important milestone in American music and culture as well. This success was in part because Drums of Passion literally was more accessible, being recorded in a Western studio and benefiting from distribution by a major label. Still, this was no small feat. Remastered here to a brilliant clarity, on this re-issue the listener can hear every finger dropping on the drumheads. Drum freaks will love Drums of Passion and anyone at all serious about jazz, ethnic, or “world” music should grab a copy of this groundbreaking, important re-release, because Babatunde Olatunji can still inspire.
// Notes from the Road
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