Babatunde Olatunji

Nigerian-born drummer Michael Babatunde Olatunji grew to international fame beginning in the late '50s with his groundbreaking 1959 Capitol Records debut Drums of Passion. The album was a huge hit, remaining in print for decades and standing as one of the first examples of the American record-buying public taking an interest in international music. Jazz kingpin John Coltrane took a particular liking to Olatunji's music, and the two became friends, eventually going so far as to collaborate on the opening of Olatunji's Center for African Culture in Harlem, an institution founded in 1965 to offer classes centered around African culture. Along with recording his own albums throughout the 40-year period following Drums of Passion, Olatunji played with a host of stand-out artists of multiple genres, making guest appearances on records by jazz greats like Cannonball Adderley, Horace Silver, and Max Roach, as well collaborating with artists who ran the spectrum, from Stevie Wonder to Bob Marley. Guitar rock gods Santana re-interpolated an Olatunji composition on their debut album, and several members of the Grateful Dead contributed to his 1986 album Dance to the Beat of My Drum. Olatunji went on to work closely with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and vocalist Flora Purim on the Planet Drum project. His work was tireless and included work on music for films and Broadway productions, drumming workshops, political activism, and a lengthy stint as a musical educator. Olatunji suffered from diabetes and eventually succumbed to the disease in 2003, but he actively recorded and taught in the years leading up to his death, leaving behind a legacy of healing music and social outreach. ~ Fred Thomas

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