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Babatunde Olatunji Dies

Babatunde Olatunji, a Nigerian drummer whose music did much to break world music in America and who was a profound influence on John Coltrane, died April 9 in Salinas, Calif. of diabetes complications. He was 76.

Born in Ajido a Nigerian fishing village, Olantunji made plans to become a diplomat when offered a scholarship to Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1950. His studies later brought him to New York City where he formed a band that played African music. The band played concerts and provided inspiration at several civil-rights rallies.

Olatunji’s 1959 album Drums of Passion introduced America at large to the sound of African music. It was the first record of African drumming recorded in stereo in an American studio and influenced the work of jazz artists like Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane, who wrote “Tunji” in the drummer’s honor. Coltrane also helped Olatunji found the Olatunji Center for African Culture, a music and dance school for children in Harlem that closed in 1988.

Olatunji continued to record both as a leader and a sideman until his death. Among other discs he’s heard on Cannonball Adderley’s African Waltz, Abbey Lincoln’s Devil’s Got Your Tongue and a number of albums by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who was an early Olatunji fan.

He is survived by a wife from whom he is separated, two sons, two daughters and a

brother.

Originally Published