When Nigerian-born drummer Babatunde Olatunji first became interested in a career in diplomacy in the 1950s, he started along the conventional path of earning a graduate degree in political science. To cover his expenses at New York University, he created a small drumming and dance group. As he met more and more Americans, both black and white, he was appalled at their wild misconceptions about Africa. Eventually, he concluded that the best way to enhance understanding of his country was to expose the world at large to its culture through music and dance. Abandoning his studies, he established the Olatunji Center for African Culture in Harlem to offer classes in African dance, music, language, folklore, and history. In addition he formed a group of performers to bring African music to concert stages throughout the world.
A dozen of the 21 members of Olatunji’s ensemble of drummers, singers, and dancers are featured in the Concert for Peace at Nassau Presbyterian Church on Saturday, January 24, at 8 p.m. "We’ll start with a welcome dance," says Olatunji, "and a processional that includes audience participation. We want to get the audience involved right away. When we end, there will also be a finishing processional." Joining the ensemble in the 14th annual peace concert is singer-songwriter Peter Yarrow, who is currently celebrating his 36th year with the folk trio, Peter, Paul & Mary.
Proceeds from the event benefit the Peace Action Education Fund, the educational arm of the Princeton-based Coalition for Peace Action. Reverend Robert Moore, executive director of the coalition, says that the event is the first dual appearance of Olatunji and Yarrow in public performance. "The two artists are likely to draw different constituencies," says Moore. "Yarrow will appeal to the old-time folky peace-oriented crowd, and Olatunji will attract new age-oriented, world music fans." The ardor of those world music fans may have been slaked by the news that Olatunji’s latest recording, "Love Drum Talk," has been nominated for a Grammy. Interviewed by telephone from New York,
Olatunji says that he and Yarrow are planning separate pieces for the Princeton
performance, but that they may very well end up doing some numbers together spontaneously. "It usually just happens," he says.
Moore heard Olatunji and Yarrow perform together at a 1995 rally outside the headquarters of the United Nations in New York. With responsibilities for the protest against France’s resumption of nuclear testing apportioned among various organizations, Greenpeace had the assignment of providing a generator for amplification of the outdoor event. When it became clear that the generator was, as Moore puts it, "on the blink," the protesters fell back on the bullhorn that Moore had brought. "Olatunji and the drums could be heard okay," says Moore. "Yarrow had a harder time."
Yarrow, a confirmed activist, has kept a high profile since the civil rights movement of the early ’60s. He has been prominent in the anti-Vietnam War movement, and was a co-organizer of the 1969 anti-war March on Washington. He has served the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. His chief tool has been his gift as a folk singer. "We’re part of a long train ride," he says, speaking of the band of folk-singer activists who have helped lead the way to social and political change. "When I was in high school, I heard the Weavers sing `If I Had a Hammer’ at Carnegie Hall. It was inspiring, and it showed me the extraordinary effect that music of conscience can have." He describes the contribution of folk singers to politics as "a different kind of rhetoric — one that could reach the fence-sitters." His activism aims to promote the human equality that looms large in Olatunji’s map of the world.
In Olatunji’s view, an underlying human unity shows itself in the prevalence of music and dance traditions among all peoples through the ages. What all people have had in common could bear emphasizing, he believes. "Shakespeare in `Twelfth Night’" Olatunji points out, "says, `If music be the fruit of love, play on.’ Africa’s not the only place that has that idea."
The details of Olatunji’s life will become more widely known when Temple University Press publishes his autobiography, "The Beat of My Drum," later this year. Writing the autobiography was easy, Olatunji says. "I remember all of the occasions that have led me to where I am now," notes the musician who was born in 1927.
"I grew up in a small fishing village about 40 miles from Lagos, the capital," he begins. "My father was a fisherman as well as farmer, and I grew up near the lagoon and the ocean. When you grow up in a village you participate in all things having to do with the village and its culture. There’s no way to escape. When a child is born he is already part of the village. I heard the drum since I was in my mother’s womb."
In Olatunji’s village, drumming was an ever present counterpart to the ebb and flow of daily life. He often went with his great aunt Tanyin to hear the drums. "Before they went to market each day, drummers would come to greet the chief," Olatunju remembers, "and would ask to be served breakfast. The drummers would perform in the marketplace. Some of the market women, even when they were trying to sell their goods, stop and dance to the drummers’ music. It was irresistible. There were festivals almost every weekend. Where I grew up there were six or seven villages in close proximity. It was as if one weekend there would be a festival in Princeton, and the next weekend there would be one in Atlantic City. It was very rich, and was a wonderful way of growing up. My youth was a time of activity and imagination when music became a habit."
Olatunji left his village to attend a missionary school in Lagos. There he joined the Methodist Church choir, where he became a soloist. When he graduated from high school, he was selected to be trained as labor officer for the Nigerian government. During this period Olatunji read in Reader’s Digest about the Rotary International Foundation scholarships offered to young people from countries affected by war. Both he and a cousin applied, and won scholarships that brought them to the United States in 1950 to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta. Their arrival in the U.S. exposed them to the humiliations of Jim
Crow, but they were undaunted. The scholarship money was not quite enough to live on. "When I came here I had to wash dishes and pick tobacco to pay for my education," Olatunji remembers.
"My cousin became a scholar," Olatunji says. "He got a Ph.D from Boston University and became the head of a university department of anthropology and sociology. He had to leave Nigeria when the military government took over about four years ago, and the military retired him. He lives in New York now."
Olatunji himself has known adversity since his undergraduate days. After occupying a Harlem building for 20 years, his "Center for African Culture" was forced to close down in 1984. "The slum landlord refused to sell us the building," he explains. Olatunji responded by arranging to give workshops throughout the world. "When one door closes," he says, "you have an opportunity to see a crack in another." Similarly, Olatunji has put aside his plans for a Center of African Performing Arts in his home town of Ajido. Although he has lined up a tract of 50 acres, and an architect who promised to do the design as a donation, Olatunji finds the prospect of raising $2.5 million daunting. Instead, he is working on a project that he calls "Voices of Africa," with an even bigger price tag.
"Voices of Africa" will mobilize African performing artists and others to raise $500 million during next five years to address health and education problems in Africa. "I want trained people to go back to Africa," Olatunji says. "I want to see mobile medical units there and engineers."
Olatunji foresees two performances in Madison Square Garden on Labor Day weekend to benefit the project. The project has already obtained tax exempt status, and by the end of the month Olatunji expects to put down the deposit for the Garden. In February and March he will travel to Africa and the West Indies, seeking out popular African performers and enlisting the support of governmental officials. He intends to call on Nelson Mandela, for whom he provided the drums and chant at a prayer service in New York’s Riverside Church.
"Ask not what Africa can do for you, but what you can do for Africa," says Olatunji, borrowing from John F. Kennedy the message he intends to bring to supporters of Voices of Africa. "I’m tired of begging. We should start initiatives ourselves." Olatunji intends to contribute one-third of his earnings to the project.
Olatunji, as heard on "Love Drum Talk," the CD nominated for a Grammy, does not sound particularly African. Many of the lyrics are in English. The harmonies and melodies are easy to assimilate. The beat is compelling. It is hard to sit still and listen — the sound is an invitation to move. However, when Olatunji talks about the instruments he uses, his links to Africa are clear. Even their names are non-European — cora, djembe, ashiko, and junjun.
The cora, which Olatunji says will be the featured instrument for the Princeton performance, has 26 strings and no frets. It is played directly with the fingers. To construct the instrument, says Olatunji, you start with "a very large gourd, as they grow in Africa." The gourd is cut in two to make a component about one and a half feet long, the opening is covered with animal skin, a stick is attached, and the strings are attached to the stick.
The djembe, ashiko, and junjun are drums, sometimes tunable, sometimes not. "We put modern hardware on so you can tune them. Otherwise, you have to warm them by carrying an electric heater," says Olaltunji. "The pitch of the drum is affected by heat. In Africa it’s hot." The tuning hardware changes the pitch by varying the tension on the animal-skin drum head. "If it’s a tunable drum," says Olatunji, "you don’t have to heat." He prefers drums without the
hardware. The djembe, he says, can be tuned by tightening the laces that
surround it tapered cylindrical body. "I don’t like tunable djembes," Olatunji says. "The aesthetic value gets lost. The beauty of the drum is enhanced by the way it is laced." The djembe can be as much as two feet tall. The ashiko can be even larger. The two-faced junjun is played with a stick; a small cowbell, attached to the junjun may be played with the other hand to bring out syncopations. "If you know how to play the drum," says Olatunji, "you can play vigorously and take out your frustrations without hurting the drum, and without hurting yourself either." Now there’s an easily grasped idea that people throughout the world can share.
Baba Olatunji and Peter Yarrow, Concert for Peace, Nassau Presbyterian Church, Nassau Street, 609-924-5022. Sponsor tickets are $100 and include dinner and pre-concert reception. Patron tickets $50. Concert admission only, $20 & $30. Saturday, January 24, 8 p.m.