Monday, April 22, 2013

Olatunji! Drums of Passion

Released in early 1960 on the powerhouse Columbia label, Drums of Passion was among the first so-called "world music" recordings made and released in the U. S.  Its impact was stunning:  five million copies were eventually sold and the album transcended the novelty-chic that accompanied its release as it became a true classic.  In a way, the record is a hybrid, substantively based on west African rhythms, specifically from Nigeria, but the presence of several Americans, especially in the chorus, added another dimension to the music that may actually had aided in its appeal to Western audiences.  In any case, Drums of Passion has great historical as well as musical interest.

Babatunde Olatunji, born in 1927 in a small village in southwestern Nigeria, came to the United States in 1950 to study on a Rotary International scholarship.  He attended Morehouse College, a black college in Atlanta, and created a percussion group to play his native music while going to school.  In 1957, he was signed to Columbia and Drums of Passion was his surprisingly successful debut. 

Olatunji's emergence might be tied in general ways to the post-World War II period was one in which African independence movements had a kindred response from many black Americans participating in the civil rights movement in the U.S.  It seems impossible to imagine him being able to accomplish what he did in the pre-1950 era and it could be a fascinating, if ultimately fruitless, endeavor to try to explain what, socially and politically, the influences were in the acceptance of this record.  Unless, the appeal was purely musical, which is entirely possible.

In any event, Olatunji became quite close to one of the giants of the early 1960s era, jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, who named the song "Tunji" after the percussionist of the 1962 Coltrane album.  He also assisted Olatunji in opening up a musical and cultural center in Harlem and, in fact, Coltrane's last recorded public performance was for a 1967 benefit at the center just a few months before his death from liver cancer. 

There were a couple of follow-up albums on Columbia and the percussionist guested on jazz albums led by Randy Weston, a devoted follower of African music who later lived in Morocco, Cannonball Adderly, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln and others.  By the mid-1960s, however, Olatunji's wave has crested, though there was comeback of sorts in the 1980s, when Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, among others, championed Olatunji's resurgence.  A Rykodisc release from 1989 called Drums of Passion: The Beat was an early example of "world music" in this listener's collection shortly afterward.  Olatunji continued to work and teach until his death in 2003 the day before his 76th birthday.

The eight tracks on this record provide a spectrum of percussion sounds, vocalizations and themes.  The opener, "Akiwowo," pays tribute to a noted trainman in Nigeria and the rhythms mimic the repetitive sounds of a train and the singers pay homage to the subject.  "Oya" is the sole original piece by Olatunji and concerns the development of fire as an early human tool, hence the translated title of "Primitive Fire."  It is a showpiece for the hypnotic, powerful drumming that makes this album so memorable. 

After a New Year's Day piece comes one of the most distinctive of the record's songs, the title track, "Jin-Go-Lo-Ba" or "Drums of Passion.  A duet between different types of drums, the liner notes describe this as "a symphonic drum drama."  It certainly has that feeling of expansiveness and power.  The most melodic of the pieces, to this listener, is "Kiyakiya" or "Why Do You Run Away?" which reflects the changing pace of life in then-modern Africa as people were increasingly hurrying to and fro and the rhythm details the fast-paced life that proves so worrisome.

A fliratation dance duet between Olatunji and drummer Aquasiba Derby is followed by a tune "Oyin Momo Ado" or "Sweet as Honey" which includes the thumb piano, a ubiquitous native African instrument.  These interludes lead to the staggering closer, "Shango", or "Chant to the God of Thunder," which builds to a frenzied climax of impassioned drumming and ululations, shouts, cries and other vocalizing.  It is a fantastic end to a remarkable record that sounds as timeless as the tradition that birthed it. 

The mark of a great album is that it never fails to thrill even upon repeated listenings.  Drums of Passion is one of those.

Olatunji!  Drums of Passion (Columbia Records, 1960)

1.  Akiwowo
2.  Oya
3.  Odun De! Odun De!
4.  Jin-Go-Lo-Ba
5.  Kiyakiya
6.  Baba Jinde
7.  Oyin Momo Ado
8.  Shango

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