Originally recorded in 1993, but never released until now (two years after Olatunji’s death at age 76 after a battle with diabetes), Circle of Drums is a powerful reminder of the primal potency of the drum. While the album is unlikely to turn on anyone looking for a heavy dose of primal African drumming, I welcomed it for the simple fact that, as a suburban white dude, it is always a pleasure to hear a modern execution of the drum circle that has little, if any, connection to my unfortunate high school memories of unshaven stoners pounding djembes in the basement of the house down the street.
While my bad memories are partially the result of his influence, Olatunji has been retrospectively (and unfairly) diminished by those who point out that his massively popular 1959 album, Drums of Passion was a watered-down and gentrified presentation of African music. But that’s missing the point. Even if he succumbed somewhat to the dictates of show business, what Olatunji did on that album is the same things he was doing on Circle of Drums: providing an easy point of entry for people curious to know more about a style of music that has its roots in the beginnings of humanity.
Maybe those people will go on to more “authentic” albums by the likes of the Drummers of Burundi, but for someone wanting to dip their toe in the water, two-thirds of Circle of Drums is highly recommended.
The album finds fellow Nigerian Sikiru Adepoju and the Serbian drum artist Muruga Booker augmenting Olatunji’s own forceful drumming. Adepoju’s work seamlessly blends with Olatunji’s, but Muruga’s work on synthesizer and modern drum has a hard time seeming anything other than tacked-on. Muruga’s forced attempts at modernizing Olatunji’s sound diminish the tertiary strength that the rest of the album draws from.
While Olatunji will be remembered for his skill with the drum, his vocals also have a magical and regal quality. As opposed to so much western music, Olatunji uses the vocal to impart a rhythmic, as opposed to melodic, quality. On the appropriately named “Incantations”, words are stretched out and repeated in such a way that they are not felt as distinct melody, over and above the rhythm, but they join with it, as another element of the circle.
With this kind of album, there is always the worry that the spirit and drive of the music will be subsumed by a punchless, new-agey, meditative vibe. Indeed, the track “Dawn (Idaji)”, with its conspicuously modern synthesizers and not very funky “funky” work on the cymbals, is the most generic track on the album. Olatunji himself is hardly noticeable on the cut, and the listener is worse off for it. The “eerie” synths and rote break beats seem more appropriate for the soundtrack to a kickboxing video game than they do for the dawn of humanity.
The forced updating of the traditional sounds continues with “Embracement”. Again we have none of Olatunji’s magisterial chanting, and the drums are secondary in the mix to what sounds like a hammered dulcimer. The result is something more befitting the ambience of a cheap restaurant than the atmosphere of transcendence that the album is so clearly aiming for.
Thankfully, “Dawn (Idaji)” and “Embracement” are the album’s only two real missteps. The closing “Ascension (Igoke)” opens with some tasteful (!) synth gurgles before it launches into a spirited and spiritual game of tension and release. But nothing on the album compares to the epic, 21-minute closing track, “Cosmic Rhythm Variations”. Here, for the first time, there is enough room to let the rhythmic variations run their natural course. Listen to this one with your eyes closed and the lights off - the only limits to where the music can take you are your own.
If you’re not already a fan of relatively unadorned tribal drumming, large sections of the album may sound repetitive and boring. There are also sops to New Age hokum that will disappoint the aficionados, but ultimately, there is nothing on Circle of Drums that shames the memory of the great Babatunde Olatunji.