Spoken at the Benefit for Babatunde Olatunji, The Paramount Theatre, Mittletown, New York. April 7, 2001
I first knew of Baba when I was about seven years old. Baba and Drums of Passion came to perform for Homecoming at Howard University. My father worked with the foreign students at the University to bring Baba to D.C. It was an exciting time! Thank you, Baba!
In the Oya African Dancers and Drummers, from 1968-1974, we used Baba’s material, singing and flailing to “Jin Go-Lo Ba!, and “Akiwowo!” The crowds loved us; what excitement! Thank you, Baba!
I met Baba, himself, just a few years later, coming to New York City from Ohio’s Oberlin College, to spend my January Winter Term Project at the Center for African Culture at 125th and 5th Avenue. That month, sitting with Baba, listening to Baba, meeting his peers, doing programs with his then-five piece ensemble (including myself) set the stage for much of my life to come. What an exciting time! Thank you, Baba!
Then, fifteen years later, moved from New York back to D.C.I humbly called upon Baba to write the introduction to my book, “The Drummer’s Path”, to which he so graciously complied. I was so excited! Once again, Thank you, Baba!
We corresponded over the years, as I gathered information on a biography on Baba. Wonderful, Modupe!
The last time I saw Baba was two years ago, in upstate New York. I’d come to perform for my teacher, my mentor, my thirty-year example. I slipped into the school gymnasium kinda quiet (in my kente print ensemble!), and stood on the side to enjoy the drum circling and the networking and the good times. It was exciting!
Soon, Baba sat down and called for a circle. Of course, everyone complied. What? I heard my name! Eh? “Sule! Sule; come here!” I had to go sit at my Baba’s side he spoke as an old man would, wisely, softly, surely. Sometimes he held my hand as spoke to the people gathered that day of the power of drum, of community, of peace. All too soon, that moment was ended. Soon came the moment to perform for Baba. I thought of the years he had been in my life, and ways I knew of the lives he had touched: Howard University in the 60’s, Harlem in the Seventies, performing with and learning from his peers and students in the Eighties, working on the book in the Nineties. I thought of all my teachers who were not there that day. I spoke for them, and for me, for us all. When we went on stage, to make our “show”, our homage, it was time to testify:
“WeÕre hereÑin this place, in this time–to honor Babatunde Michael Olatunji. Born in Nigeria, he came to the United States, to the Heart of Dixie, during the Days of Segregation. And though from a foreign land, he, too, has felt what itÕs like to be Black in America. If Babatunde Michael Olatunji had not come to Morehouse College in 1954, our lives, and the lives of millions of others, would have been so, so different. If Babatunde Michael Olatunji had not grown tired of people asking if Africans really lived in trees, we would not have had his musicÑand hand drums–in our lives. If Babatunde Michael Olatunji had not allowed himself to become an International Ambassador of Culture from the land of HumankindÕs birth, we would not have drums in our lives. If Babatunde Michael Olatunji had not written, and recorded “Jin GoLo Ba”, where would “World Music” be today? If Babatunde Michael Olatunji had not come to Fifth Avenue in New York CityÕs Harlem, and founded an institution that brought beautiful, talented, Spirited people–Baba Ifakorede, Baba Taiwo, Iya Akwasida, Iya Afida, Bobo, Papa Ladji, Noelle! Baba Ishangi, Akanni, Guy Warren, John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, Bobby Crowder Baba Olukose and many, many others together, The Funk! Would not have come forth. The Spirit of the DrumÉmight not have come. And as we all know, WE NEED THE FUNK! Oh, Yeah; uh, huh! WE NEED THE DRUM! Say it with me: “WE NEED THE FUNK! WE NEED THE DRUM!” One more time: “WE NEED THE FUNK! WE NEED THE DRUM!” Else we wouldnÕt—none of us would have been here. Can I get an “Amen”? Alright! Now, to get us started, weÕve got to be righteous and thank the Ancestors for opening the Path for BabatundeÑ”The Father Has Returned!”–to come to earth and walk, and in whose footsteps all gathered here in body and in Spirit now stand! Let us commenceÉ..”
The Sule Greg Wilson Ensemble
How exciting it has been! Modupe! Modupe! Modupe! Ashe-oh! Ashe-oh!
Thank you, thank you, Baba.
Contact Sule Greg Wilson for more information.