October 2, 2003

Test Spin: Babatunde Olatunji

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When Babatunde Olatunji succumbed to a long battle with diabetes in April this year, it didn’t quite garner as much attention as Johnny Cash’s death did a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t hear Justin Timberlake or Snoop Dogg bemoaning their boy Babatunde’s absence at the Grammys, like they did Cash’s at the VMAs. But depending on whom you talk to, Olatunji was just as influential within the genre of traditional West-African percussion as Cash was in American country.

Although relatively unknown (like every world artist), Olatunji’s first album, Drums of Passion, released in 1959, was a hit by anyone’s standards, selling 5 million copies. Healing Session, which was originally recorded in 1992, is inspired by the sounds of Olatunji’s native Yoruban culture. Each of the eight songs is built upon Olatunji and his chorus’s chants as well as an array of drums and percussive instruments. Minimalist in nature, the tracks rely on little outside the rhythms of the drums and the call and response based on the songs’ titles to carry them. Most of the time, the drums take center stage, but occasionally, on songs such as “Edunmare” and “NeNe,” the vocals stand at the forefront. Regardless of Olatunji’s talent and influence, Healing Session loses points for lack of variety within the album’s song structures; each one has the same basic, sometimes repetitive format. But as far as African music goes, Healing Session is worth a listen.

Archived article by Ross McGowan