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Babatunde Olatunji - Circle of Drums Print E-mail
Tuesday, 24 May 2005
Image Are you, or your parents, or your grandparents, one of the 5,000,000 people in America who bought 1959’s Drums of Passion and made Babatunde Olatunji a household name? (Though not one you can say really fast 10 times, I’ll bet.) That figure is total sales up to today, but still, he moved a lot of vinyl for the ‘50s.

Especially when you consider what a weird-ass record it was at the time for people to even find out about, let alone buy, listen to and dig. In 1959? Bobby Darin, Dion, Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Connie Francis, Ray Charles and the Chipmunks topped the charts. Dig this: it was nearly 30 years before anyone used the term “world music” (invented, in fact, in 1987 at a meeting in London of a group of small record label scions and one music journalist who were frustrated at trying to market this diverse and heretofore uncategorizable music and wanted one umbrella name for it and one place in the record stores where it could all land and people could find it and buy it); today, most musicologists and music history authorities would name Olatunji’s Drums of Passion as the first world music album, the first that made an impact in the West and paved the road for all the others to come. It literally opened American and European ears to music created beyond their collective borders.

Some would question the geographical/racial paternalism inherent in such a term as world music, despite its strictly commercial birthing by Brits who loved the music and wanted to promote it. In the New York Times in Oct. ‘99, David Byrne penned a feature titled “Why I Hate World Music,” quoted and discussed in this intriguing account – – by one of those 1987 genre inventors, Ian, no, not the flutey one, Anderson: "In my experience, the use of the term world music is a way of dismissing artists or their music as irrelevant to one's own life," Byrne avowed. "It's a way of relegating this 'thing' into the realm of something exotic and therefore cute, weird but safe, because exotica is beautiful but irrelevant; they are, by definition, not like us … It groups everything and anything that isn't 'us' into 'them.' This grouping is a convenient way of not seeing a band or artist as a creative individual, albeit from a culture somewhat different from that seen on American television. It's a label for anything at all that is not sung in English or anything that doesn't fit into the Anglo-Western pop universe this
year." Be that as it may, in the early 1950s, Michael Babatunde Olatunji, who staved off homesickness at Morehouse College in Atlanta by performing, with other African expatriates, the traditional Yoruban drumming he had learned as a child, and continued when he moved to NYU for grad studies, changed his mind about the diplomat he had traveled to America from his small Nigerian fishing village to become after he started getting regular gigs around the NYC area, had a hit song, played Radio City Music Hall with a cast of 66 performers backing him, got signed to Columbia by legendary talent sniffer John Hammond, recorded and released The Album and made I’m sure big djembe drumloads of money.

I think I’m a musician now, he said, and people like Coltrane, Ellington, Basie and Dizzy G agreed, as did a young Bobbie D, who referenced him on his Freewheelin’ LP, and MLK, Jr., with whom he toured, and JFK, who had him play at his inauguration. He performed at the New York World’s Fair in ‘64, and accepted a residency at Esalen in Big Sur.

Olatunji changed the face of music in the world, and it changed him, as he began a lifelong journey exploring, promoting and teaching drumming as a spiritual quest for all mankind. (Apparently without finding any incongruity in the nature of his chosen path to divine perfection: hitting things.)

The years pass without hit albums, or even many albums at all, past the mid-‘60s, but Olatunji maintains his august status and his activity, until diabetes accompanies him into the twenty-first century and he finally succumbs to it April 6, 2003, one day before his seventy-sixth birthday. It turns out that 10 years earlier, he had recorded this album, Circle of Drums, and I’ll be danged if I can find a single website, including the record label Chesky’s, that offers any explanation as to how this remarkable recording could languish untouched for 12 years. Because while those three words “Drums of Passion” will always follow Olantunji’s name within a beat or two, this final, posthumous album Circle of Drums is his swan song, and though he didn’t live to see this nugget from a previous century find its voice, I feel he would consider it a fitting legacy. I consider it one of the best albums of the year, hands down.

Olatunji has his share of naysayers these days who point out that his pioneering ‘50s-‘60s work made serious commercial concessions that today’s world music-savvy audiences wouldn’t hold in such high regard, nor buy in the millions. Anyone else see the absurd myopia of such a premise? He built the bridge, dammit. There was nothing there before him. (Chart-topping vocalists like Harry Belafonte, the Clancy Brothers and Miriam Mkeba don’t really count.) And he did it with drums, mind you. Not the sax or violins, pianos or guitars familiar to Western ears as vehicles of melody and emotion. To call his early work commercial, even “Broadway,” misses the point. It was precisely because his musical vision was able to perceive and integrate the connection between ancient African rhythms and twentieth-century American musical forms that heavy cats like Coltrane and Ellington sought him out and started digging dashikis. And The Album is still selling today, remixed and remastered but still the same skins Olatunji slapped in ’59.

And that’s why I think he’d be proud of Circle of Drums. It too has its commercial concessions, if you must call them that, but isn’t it a more difficult artistic feat to move forward into the constant now with your vision and integrity intact, changing the tools with the times but expressing the same truths in new and different ways that speak to new generations? You can be Bob Dylan and still be a force to reckon with 40 years on, or you can be Pete Seeger and keep pluckin’ that banjo and invoking the ghost of Joe Hill. Score traditionalists a point each for integrity and constancy (predictability), lose a few for lack of relevance, imagination, artistic guts and vision.

When Serbian drummer Muruga Booker (Weather Report, Paul Winter) finally met the man who inspired him through The Album (“when I first heard it, I stayed in my mother’s living room for two weeks listening to that record”), he proposed the shamanic/trance drumming project which became Circle of Drums. He recalls that Babatunde said yes, “on the condition that ‘we must be equals and I want my friend Sikiru to play on the album.’”

Fellow Yoruban drummer Sikiru Adepoju’s talking drum expertise landed him a tour in the mid-‘80s with countryman Chief Ebenezer Obey, which brought him to San Francisco where he met Olatunji and was invited to record, along with Carlos Santana (whose guitar-blazing but percussion-driven version of Olatunji’s “Jingo” became Santana’s first hit in 1969), Brazilian jazz percussionist Airto, and Dead drummer Mickey Hart, the album that became Olatunji’s Dance to the Beat of My Drum (1986). It was the start of a 17-year musical relationship between the two Nigerian drummers, and Sikiru brought to the Circle sessions his wife Shakti for vocals, as well as friends Harry Ely on hammered dulcimer and James Gurley on ektar, a one-stringed East Indian guitar. (Big bonus trivia points to any of you who, reading that last sentence, heard a voice in your head say, Waiiittt a minute – same James Gurley from Big Brother and the Holding Company? The answer is yes, but I couldn’t get an answer anywhere on the web until I finally found it buried in the middle of a 10-year-old Relix Magazine article. I never thought Big Brother could play that well, so it was probably a good idea for Gurley to get it down to one string that he could concentrate on.)

So you’ve got The Master on his djembe, and ashiko and ngorra drums, and wailing primal vocals (becoming another perfectly-integrated instrument on “Incantations”), and students/masters Sikiru on his talking drum and other African percussions and Muruga on a Western drum kit, nada drum and synthesizer. (But if it’s nada drum…. oh, never mind. Actually, it’s a very expressive, versatile instrument.) When the Western drums, synth and/or dulcimer kick in, or even dominate a number or parts of it, some purists might cry foul, but if you could query Baba, I’d like to think he’d say something like this:

If you want unadulterated authentic Yoruban drumming, quit standing here and go fly to Nigeria, man, travel to the villages near my home and wait for the right moment. Mine is the music of drums, but if a synthesizer is the best way to invoke the power of the dawn, or hammered dulcimer tones have just the hint of the Middle East that fit my vision of “Embracement,” I do not hesitate to use them. You do still hear the native drums, singing, dancing, driving it all, don’t you? Do you think you’re talking to Madonna?

That’s what he’d say. Well, okay, he probably wouldn’t, at least not the sarcastic Madonna part, because by all accounts he was a very generous and humble man. But here’s what I say. My D of P LP is not original 1959 issue, but I have had it for many, many years. (My LP doesn’t hold a candle to my Circle SACD but we’re talking Stone Age vs. computer age technologies here; I would like to hear the remastered D of P.) I’ve always listened to all kinds of music and had shelves of esoteric Nonesuch collections from around the world, but nothing opened my ears to the musicality and unique language of drums the way these three gents on this album have. Not even the jazz masters I so love and admire. (Elvin Jones, don’t haunt me, I know you understand. ‘Cause you’re probably jammin’ with Baba right now on Cloud Nine.) It’s hard to put into words, but the level of artistry is so high here that even a muttonhead, if he gives it a serious listen, will hear … not exactly melodies and the kind of structure we’re used to in our pop music, but the percussive equivalent, what that all sounds like when you do it only with drums. It’s an education, it’s a journey and it’s a trip (especially the last 21-minute cut, “Cosmic Rhythm Vibrations”). Put aside all your prejudices, particularly any you may have about drum solos or drum circles, or the inaccessibility of non-Western music, and Babatunde and His Buddies will blow your mind. We’ll miss him dearly on this drum planet, but what a going-away gift he left us, wrapped up a dozen years before he left.

The sound is it. Not all of it, of course. But it’s the vehicle, the tunnel that takes you inside, that drives this to the stratosphere and reveals the complexity of the playing. It’s the sonic range, emotion and timing of each skin slap, each finger or thumb stroking flowing, floating, liquid exploding notes out of those stretched surfaces, revealed in this mix.

It’s the mix. As usual, I listen to an album first (many times) the way it will be heard by most people, as a stereo CD. Usually in my car. And I was just blown away by the presence and clarity of this recording. It is without question one of the best-mixed stereo CDs I’ve ever heard. The credits name Nicholas Prout (editing, mixing and mastering engineer) as the guy to blame, but I’m sure the Cheskys, David and Norman, who resurrected the recording to release on their audiophile label, were intimately involved. At any rate, this is a textbook example of how it should be done.

They mess with you a bit in the opening 40 seconds in the most delightful way (as though showing off what could be done throughout, but isn’t, out of respect for artistry over flash), giving each drummer on his respective signature skin an opening salvo – precisely delineated left, right, then center – then slowly rotating and adding each to the other, throwing in percussive blips here and there for flavor, with a simple seductive slow beat that creates a nearly irresistible urge to get up and groove; it’s very appropriately titled “Stepping,” but then in the last 45 seconds should be renamed “Run!” Fun.

But if you want real fun, throw this on your surround system and prepare to be transported. Again, nothing is done just for show; the mix serves the music. The various instruments don’t move around the room and circle your head and fly out the window, because that would distract from the real wizardry going on, the playing and the interaction of three drum masters. But precisely because you are plopped down in the middle where you can hear (this reminds you how much ambient and other indiscernible noise there is at even the most respectfully quiet concert halls), with total separation and clarity, the dynamics of each note by each player, it becomes easy and natural to hear simultaneously how each is integrating his playing and his dynamics with the others, to make a whole that’s every bit as interactively exact, complex and virtuosic as the best rock supergroup, jazz quartet or symphony orchestra.

Each song is given room to breathe and grow; the shortest number is nearly six minutes long, culminating in the “Cosmic Rhythm Vibrations” closer at 21:28. If that one don’t blow your mind, take a cell count, you’ve got nothing left to blow.

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