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World music pioneer Olatunji dead

Babatunde Olatunji in August 2002
Babatunde Olatunji in August 2002

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SAN FRANCISCO, California (Reuters) -- World music pioneer Babatunde Olatunji, the Nigerian drummer and bandleader whose groundbreaking 1959 recording "Drums of Passion" brought African music to a wide American audience, died April 6. He was 76.

Olatunji, who was born and raised in a tiny Nigerian fishing village, died at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital, a hospital spokesman said, declining further details. The musician's daughter told The New York Times her father died of complications of advanced diabetes.

Olatunji influenced many musicians over his career and at the time of his death was living at the nearby Esalen Institute in Big Sur as an artist-in-residence.

While he garnered numerous accolades over his career, the landmark "Drums of Passion" stands out as an album that critics say introduced Americans to the intricacy and power of African music. It is also considered the first African album recorded in a modern studio.

In 1950 Olatunji came to the United States to study at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, to prepare for a career as a diplomat. But while studying public administration at New York University, he formed an African-style drum ensemble and embarked on a completely different path.

His band appeared at civil rights rallies led by Martin Luther King Jr., performed at New York's famed Radio City Music Hall and was eventually signed by Columbia Records.

He eventually opened the Olatunji Center for African Culture in Harlem with help from jazz great John Coltrane. He gave music and dance lessons there until 1988.

Olatunji also influenced a wave of musicians who began experimenting in the 1960s with fusing African sounds into their own music. His song "Jin-Go-Lo-Ba" was later recorded by rock guitarist Carlos Santana.

Years later in 1991 Olatunji received a Grammy Award for his collaboration with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart on "Planet Drum."

The musician also wrote a number of scores for Broadway and Hollywood productions, including the music for Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It."

Olatunji's most recent album "Love Drum Talk" was released in 1997 and went on to win a nomination for the 1998 Grammy for Best World Music Album.

He is survived by his wife; two sons, two daughters, a brother, and seven grandchildren.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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