Almost four years to the day before his passing (on April 6, 2003), Babatunde Olatunji inspired me to get into African drumming.
He had first touched me long before that, when I saw him play in New York in the late 1980s and then listened to “Drums of Passion” and his other albums over and over again. I had made a few forays into drumming – a brief stint with a samba school in New York and classes from Simone LaDrumma and Tor Dietrichson in Seattle – but when I saw Baba at the 1999 World Rhythm Festival, I decided that I had to learn African drumming, and I had to learn from him.
Baba was clearly getting old in the spring of 1999. He shuffled when he walked and was almost blind. But he had a beautiful presence and welcomed anyone who approached him like an old friend. His voice was strong and his drumming powerful. Even with all the positive energy around him, though, you could sense mortality creeping up on him. As soon as I saw him, I decided that I would study with him while I had the opportunity.
I found out that Baba taught a week-long African drum and dance workshop every summer at the Omega Institute, an hour or so north of New York City. I immediately signed up for that summer’s workshop. I didn’t want to show up there as a complete beginner, so I also started taking classes at Bill Matthews’ Fremont Drum Shop right away.
I arrived at Omega with a nice Mali djembe I had bought from Bill and a few months of basic hand drumming instruction. I had no technique, no sense of time, and absolutely no comprehension of the depth, breadth, simplicity, complexity, subtlety, and genuineness of Africa and rhythm culture.
At Omega, Baba made us feel like members of a big family. He was the regal and magnificent, powerful yet accessible patriarch. Sanga of the Valley was the subversive, pleasantly rowdy uncle. Clint was the level-headed family mentor, making the music accessible and achievable. After lunch, I’d play basketball with Baba’s grandson Ayo in the sweltering August afternoon heat, doing my best Gary Payton imitation and actually beating Ayo a few times one-on-one.
At Omega, Baba made you feel like a star. Whether you were proudly acknowledging your relationship with him as he played “Primitive Fire” for an amazing tap dancer or performing with him at the big public show that wrapped up Omega’s “Arts Week,” you felt about 1,000% better because you were affiliated with him.
I left Omega like this. The day before we left, I had overheard someone talking about some bodywork they had received. They said it felt like someone had taken all of their chattering mental energy, calmed it down, and moved it into their heart. I told Baba that that’s what my week there with him and his family had been like.
Over the past four years, I have studied African drumming with pretty much every African drum teacher in Seattle, with Gordy Ryan (Baba’s long-time djundjun player, who now lives here in Seattle part of the year), with Mamady Keita, and with many other rhythm teachers. I used to play for two or three African dance classes every week and continue to study West African music and culture. I will always be grateful to Baba for drawing me in to this community.