Olatunji CD review [Columbia/Legacy]

Music Reviews
Olatunji CD review [Columbia/Legacy]
Jul 30, 2002, 22:26

OLATUNJI Drums of Passion CD

In April of this year, Nigerian-born percussionist Michael Babtunde Olatunji died at the age of 75, from complications of diabetes. And so it is with sad, but inescapable irony that we observe his passing, only months after the shamefully overdue Columbia/Legacy re-release of his multi-million-selling 1960 debut.

Widely considered to be the first “world music” album recorded in the U.S.—and certainly the first LP of unadulterated African music recorded in this hemisphere—Drums of Passion is a stone-cut classic that no lover of moving, honest music should lack. I've read that Olatunji, who emigrated to America in the mid-50s to study medicine, has been criticized for being less-than-genuine in the presentation of his native music; that the album is merely a diluted cocktail of African styles, served up to cash in on the “exotica” craze of the era. But this just smacks of some kind of sour grapes elitism if you ask me. Having heard several, much older “field” recordings of African music since I discovered this record in a thrift store some years back, I honestly hear very little difference, other than a much-cleaner recording.

This is relentless party music, essentially unchanged for literally thousands of years, driven by thundering tribal percussion and joyous shouts. All modern dance music clearly has its roots in the contagious rhythms found on this record, and the wake of revelations generated by its appearance reverberate deep and wide to this day. Olatunji was, perhaps most famously, a key influence on John Coltrane, who sought musical and spiritual insight from him and recorded “Tunji” in homage. Those who have also acknowledged a debt to Drums of Passion include Mongo Santamaria, Cannonball Adderley, and Randy Weston (see 1992's Music of Our Fathers.) But, to these ears, the best illustration of successful, heartfelt absorption of Olatunji's sound is in the madly swinging, shout-laced abandon of Charles Mingus. Put Blues & Roots on after this, and tell me otherwise.

The fully ignited fuse of the blues, and the subsequent glue of all American (and most post-WWII Latin) music, right here. One has only to pop this in and let it rip to beam back to ground zero in Congo Square, New Orleans—or before, should you choose. (The disc features a previously unreleased track from the same sessions.) [Columbia/Legacy]

-Peter Aaron

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