Babatunde Olatunji, the name behind the thrilling Yoruba Christmas carol ‘Betelehemu’

Michael Eli Dokosi December 27, 2019
Atlanta's Morehouse College Men's Glee Club via

When Nigerian recording artist Babatunde Olatunji died on April 6, 2003 from diabetes, he had done enough to represent his native country and Africa abroad leaving an endearing legacy.

The drummer, educator and social activist who entered the world on April 7, 1927 in Nigeria’s Ajido village would get to know about Rotary International Foundation’s scholarship program in the Reader’s Digest magazine. He applied for it, and after being accepted made it to the United States of America in 1950.

Image result for Babatunde Olatunji
Babatunde Olatunji via Wikimedia Commons

That scholarship will take the Yoruba man to the Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. He had wished to be part of and sing in the Morehouse College Glee Club, but as fate would have it, he never got the chance.

However, he would cross paths with Glee Club director Dr. Wendell P. Whalum and then “Betelehemu“, a Nigerian Christmas carol was birthed.

The Nigerian carol which can be sang as acappella or with optional percussion (conga, bongos, tambourines), is a remarkable piece.

The Morehouse College Glee Club performed Babatunde Olatunji’s “Betelehemu” as part of the Christmas with Robert Shaw television broadcast in December 1998. The skill, emotion and delivery exhibited is one many Africans on the continent can be proud of. For brothers on the other side to dedicate time and deliver such a piece is heartwarming  when we see others not put in same energy in rendering African inspired or originated pieces.

According to Gregory J. Rosmaita on Twitter; “It is Olatunji’s original recording of his arrangement of the song followed the massive hit he had with his 1960 Columbia LP “Drums of Passion”, which marked the 1st time an authentic West African percussion ensemble had been recorded in a state-of-the-art studio.”

He added that over the past 25 years, it has become a very popular arrangement in Christmas Concerts by an extremely wide variety of performers, as a way of making Xmas programming more inclusive.

Olatunji with a desire to be a diplomat will go on to New York University to study public administration, become buddies with greats John Coltrane with whose help he founded the Olatunji Center for African Culture in Harlem.

Others he forged relationships with include Cannonball Adderley, Horace Silver, Quincy Jones, Pee Wee Ellis, Stevie Wonder, Randy Weston, Max Roach and Abbey, Mickey Hart and Bob Dylan.

In 1969, Carlos Santana had a major hit with his cover version of “Jin-go-lo-ba” from Olatunji’s first album, which Santana recorded on his debut album, Santana, as “Jingo”.

Olatunji composed music for the roadway theatrical and the 1961 Hollywood film productions of Raisin in the Sun. He assisted Bill Lee with the music for his son Spike Lee’s hit film ‘She’s Gotta Have It.’

His activism was reflected in his The Beat of My Drum: An Autobiography, with a foreword by Joan Baez, (Temple University Press, 2005). He toured the American south with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and joined King in the march on Washington.

He’s performed with Bob Marley, Dick Gregory, Patti LaBelle and Eddie Palmieri, amongst others. Olatunji is a Grammy Award winner as well as an inductee into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 2001.

Babatunde Olatunji died a day before his 76th birthday in Salinas, California.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: December 27, 2019


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