Olatunji's "Drums of Passion"
Review by Doug Kane
|This is the great granddaddy of them all. As it says in the liner notes, "From all indications, it is probably the first African recording in stereophonic sound in the United States." Amazingly, it continues to be possibly the most widely available recording of African percussion today.
Babatunde Olatunji needs no introduction. He is one of THE elders of the African community, and his tireless sharing of his knowledge and wisdom over the past 40 plus years is legendary. While Baba has recorded many fine albums and CDs over the years, he has largely avoided participation in the greed and hypocricy of the music industry in favor of more direct interaction, travelling the world teaching workshops. Therefore, it is difficult for us to imagine today just how popular and groundbreaking "Drums of Passion" was. It was one of the biggest selling albums of its day. Olatunji and his Drums and Passion was a highly sought after act, and was one of the featured performers at John F. Kennedy's inaugeration. Bob Dylan sang about Baba on his "The Freewheeling Bob Dylan" album ("What I want to know Mr. Football Man, is what do you do about Martin Luther King? Willie Mays? OLATUNJI?) John Coltraine came to Harlem to study at the Olatunji Center for African Music. And Baba himself became a leading voice in the civil rights movement, becoming close with both Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X (but that's another story).
In his later years Baba has become an ambassador for African drumming in general, playing rhythms from all over the continent, and mixing different styles from different regions, with the djembe that was brought to him by Papa Ladji Camara when Ladji came to this country with Les Ballet Africains, and stayed on as a part of Baba's company (before going on to record, teach and perform on his own) being prominently featured.
But Drums of Passion is album that harks back to Baba's youth, growing up in Ajido, Nigeria. It was recorded before Baba had ever heard of a djembe. As Professor Akin Akiwowo writes in the liner notes, "The selection of songs and African rhythmic renditions in this recording definitely belong to a repertoire of the long ago and present day Nigeria. ... Olatuniji has brought back to remembrance certain songs and cult rhythms of traditional significance in his boyhood days and generations ago ... ." Baba himself was an emerging giant, full of the energy of a young man on a mission. He was close enough to his youth growing up in Ajido that the rhythms still resonated deeply within him, yet he was already successfully a part of American culture, having been president of the student body of Morehouse College. Thus he was uniquely situated to bridge the gulf between the two cultures.
One of the amazing things about Drums of Passion is that the dense layers of sound are created by just four musicians. Accompanying Baba are three other musicians of great renown: Baba Hawthorne (Chief) Bey; Montigo Joe (Roger Sanders); and Baba Taiwo Duval. Complementing Baba's unique voice are a group of nine female singers. They combine to create a powerful and mesmerizing sound invoking the spirit of the past, yet vibrantly alive in the present.
The album opens with the classic "Akiwowo (Chant to the Trainman). A simple, yet infectious Samba beat slowly builds as the musicians enter one by one. One can not help to start to move to the beat. Baba and the singers praise the trainman Akiwowo, saying "thank you for bringing me safely home to the house of my father."
Next is "Oya" an invocation of primitive fire. This is an instrumental piece. The drumming begins slowly, and builds slowly as the fire crackles into life and becomes blazingly powerful, invoking the energy inherent in fire.
Next is "Odun de! Odun de! (Happy New Year)". This is simply one of the most beautiful songs, rhythms and dances I have ever heard or seen. I don't know what more to say than that.
"Jin-Go-Lo-Ba (Drums of Passion)". Yes indeed, this is the root of Santana's "Jingo". Both the voices of the drums and the voices of the singers create a musical conversation. This song is "Drums of Passion."
"Kiyakika (Why Do You Run Away)". As the liner notes say "With the changing tempo of life in Africa today, many are in a hurry to get somewhere. People are in a hurry to get rich quick; to travel by fast-moving vehicles; and to develop the country speedily. Friends no long have time to stop, salute, and gossip as before. Instead they wave to one another at a distance." This song captures that frenetic pace, and Baba's frustration with the changing times.
"Baba Jinde (Flirtation Dance)". The name says it all. In this piece, the drums are pushed along by the bell and shekere, reaching yet another crescendo.
"Oyin Momo Ado (Sweet as Honey)". This beautiful song features Baba on "thumb piano," with the drums and voices blending in harmony.
"Shango (Chant to the God of Thunder)". This is an invocation to Shango, one of the Orishas most honored by drummers. It opens with a call and response between Baba and Chief Bey (showing off his operatic vocal chords). It goes on to perhaps the most powerful drumming on the album.
As I read over this review, I realize that it does not capture the timeless power of this album. The drumming is not exceptionally fast or complicated. However, the music evokes an incredibly deep reservoir of spirit and energy that transcends time and place.
This is a must have item.
Date: Sun, 09 Nov 1997 12:34:20 -0800