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The Soul of Life

Drums of Passion: Famed African percussionist Babatunde Olatunji leads a drum and dance workshop this weekend at Cubberley Community Center in Palo Alto.

Olatunji wants to teach the world to swing

By Nicky Baxter

'RHYTHM IS the soul of life," Babatunde Olatunji likes to remind those not in the know-zone. For his massive impact on the sound of music worldwide, the Continental African is widely recognized as the djahlibah of African percussion playing. Though John Coltrane was his most noted student, the Nigerian's admirers are legion, at least among musicians. Over the past 40 years, he has worked with a long list of improvisational music movers and shakers such as Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard, Max Roach and Yusef Lateef, among others.

Now approaching 70, Olatunji appears to prefer the workshop setting to the more demanding rigors of full performance. For what seems like forever, he has continent-hopped, leading seminars. The wise-man/rhythmatist's lifelong quest to teach the world to swing was anointed by no less than Ghana's first African Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah. "He told me that instead of becoming a political diplomat"--Olatunji's original plan--"I should be a cultural ambassador and change [anti-African] images through those means." Despite his best intentions, Olatunji's impact on America's African masses has been less than spectacular. Still, he refuses to give up the ghost of Marcus Garvey's dream, that of situating Africa--and her polyphonic riddims--where it once was, smack dab in the middle of things.

Olatunji leads workshops 10am­5pm, Saturday­Sunday (July 13­14), at Cubberley Community Center, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $45 one day/$85 ($70 adv.) two days. He performs Saturday at 9pm. Tickets are $12/$10 adv. (415/493-8046)

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From the July 11-17, 1996 issue of Metro

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