Babatunde Olatunji Biography: Age, Wife, Children & Net Worth

Babatunde Olatunji – Betelehemu

Stage Name: Babatunde Olatunji
Real Name: Babatunde Olatunji
Occupation: Musician
Date Of Birth/Age: 1927–2003
State of Origin: Lagos State
Gender: Male
Nationality: Nigerian
Marital Status: Amy Olatunji
Known for: Betelehemu

Early Life and Heritage

Babatunde Olatunji, born in the village of Ajido near Badagry, Lagos State, in southwestern Nigeria, emerged as a prominent figure in the world of music, leaving an indelible mark on the global stage. A member of the Ogu people, he was immersed in the rich traditions of traditional African music from an early age. His name, Bàbátúndé, meaning ‘father has returned,’ reflected a poignant connection to his late father, Zannu, an Ogu (Egun) man. Olatunji’s father, a local fisherman on the brink of chieftaincy, passed away just two months before Olatunji’s birth. This circumstance led to Olatunji being considered a reincarnation of his father, setting the stage for a unique life journey.

Growing up surrounded by the Gun (Ogu/Egun) and Yoruba languages, Olatunji’s cultural roots were further enriched by his maternal grandmother and great-grandmother, both priestesses of the Vodun and Ogu religions. Their worship of Vodun deities, such as Kori, the goddess of fertility, laid the foundation for Olatunji’s deep connection to his heritage.

Education and Scholarly Pursuits

Despite being groomed for a chieftain position due to his father’s premature death, Olatunji’s aspirations took a different turn at the age of 12. Rejecting the traditional path, he discovered a new opportunity through the Rotary International Foundation’s scholarship program. Successful in his application, he set out for the United States in 1950 to attend Morehouse College.

At Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, Olatunji not only received education through a Rotary scholarship but also developed musical connections. Although he never sang in the Morehouse College Glee Club, he formed a strong bond with Glee Club director Dr. Wendell P. Whalum. Together, they collaborated on the Nigerian Christmas carol “Betelehemu,” a staple in the choir’s repertoire. Olatunji’s journey continued at New York University, where he pursued studies in public administration, simultaneously founding a small percussion group to support himself financially.

Musical Triumphs and Collaborations

Olatunji’s musical prowess came to the forefront when, in 1958, he captivated the audience with a performance alongside the 66-piece Radio City Music Hall orchestra. This led to a contract with Columbia Records, marking the beginning of his illustrious career. In 1959, he released “Drums of Passion,” the first of six records on the Columbia label, which became a major hit and introduced many Americans to the world of African music.

His fusion of Nigerian rhythms with elements from Ghanaian and Afro-Caribbean traditions resonated with jazz musicians, most notably forming a deep connection with John Coltrane. Together, they established the Olatunji Center for African Culture in Harlem, hosting Coltrane’s final recorded performance in 1967. Olatunji’s collaborations extended to renowned artists like Cannonball Adderley, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, and Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart, showcasing his versatility across genres.

Film, Theatre, and Cultural Impact

Beyond music, Olatunji’s influence extended to film and theatre. Notably, he composed music for both the Broadway and Hollywood adaptations of Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun” in 1961. His compositions added a rich layer to these productions, contributing to their emotional depth.

In 1986, Olatunji played a role in the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s debut film, “She’s Gotta Have It,” showcasing his ability to blend traditional African rhythms with contemporary sounds. His collaborations emphasized mentorship and the nurturing of emerging talents in the industry.

Activism and Social Justice

Olatunji’s commitment to social justice was not confined to his musical endeavors. Known for delivering impassioned speeches before live performances, he toured the American South with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and participated in the historic march on Washington. His progressive political beliefs were documented in his autobiography, “The Beat of My Drum,” with a foreword by Joan Baez.

Internationally, Olatunji’s performances left an indelible mark, including an appearance before the United Nations General Assembly that prompted Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to dance. In 1979, he participated in the Amandla Festival alongside Bob Marley, Dick Gregory, Patti LaBelle, and Eddie Palmieri.

Read about Bola Are

Teaching Legacy and Educational Contributions

A dedicated music educator, Olatunji invented the “Gun-Dun, Go-Do, Pa-Ta” method for teaching and recording drum patterns. His workshops, initiated in the late 1950s, spanned colleges, universities, cultural organizations, and governmental institutions globally. Co-authoring “Musical Instruments of Africa” in 1965, Olatunji’s commitment to education extended to summer courses at the Omega Institute in New York and the Esalen Institute in California.

Later Life and Legacy

Olatunji’s late career resurgence in the late 1980s and 1990s witnessed numerous recordings, including collaborations with Mickey Hart on the Grammy-winning “Planet Drum.” His tireless touring schedule brought “Drums of Passion” to diverse events worldwide, solidifying his status as a global musical ambassador.

In the early 2000s, Olatunji settled in California, suffering from severe diabetes. He became a scholar-in-residence at the Esalen Institute until his passing in Salinas, California, one day before his 76th birthday in 2003. Olatunji’s legacy lives on through his wife Amy, three children, seven grandchildren, and his extensive contributions to the world of music, education, and activism.

Awards and Discography

Olatunji’s impact was recognized with induction into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 2001. His discography, spanning from the iconic “Drums of Passion” in 1959 to later releases like “Circle of Drums” in 2005, showcases the enduring influence of his rhythmic innovations. Notable collaborations include Mickey Hart’s “Planet Drum,” which won the Grammy Award for Best World Music Album in 1991.

Wife and Kids

He was married to Amy, and the marriage produced three children (Omotola Olatunji, Folashade Olatunji Olusekun, and Modupe Olatunji), seven grandchildren, and a cousin, Akinsola Akiwowo, are the survivors he left behind.