NEW YORK — BABA OLATUNJI has one burning desire: to keep African culture alive and to spread it around the world. The Nigerian drum master came to the United States 40 years ago with politics on his mind, but ended up becoming a full-time musician instead. Today, he's in the midst of a long and active recording, performing, and teaching career, and he feels he's accomplished just as much through music as he could have in politics.
``It's the safest way!'' Olatunji said in an interview. ``That's what I discovered. It gives me an opportunity to be creative and to try to preserve the important things in the culture.''
Wearing a long, pale-green African robe, Olatunji is every bit the picture of a Nigerian dignitary. He speaks liltingly, in a soft voice, which drops to a whisper when he's talking about something especially significant to him.
Baba, as his friends call him, came to the US ``to whet my appetite for knowledge.'' He won a four-year scholarship to Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he hoped to further his political ambitions. ``But I started with this music thing the very week I arrived on campus,'' he recalls.
In those days it was unusual to see an African on campus, and Olatunji says, ``I had brought a small drum [from Nigeria], and the students on the campus couldn't believe it. They'd say: Are you really from Africa? Is it true that you have lions running in the streets?''
Olatunji soon came to the conclusion that everything the students knew about Africa they had learned from Hollywood movies. ``Very horrible ideas,'' he says. ``Most of these movies were filmed somewhere other than Africa. Imagine how many years of very damaging stories people have heard about Africa.''
So 30 years ago Olatunji recorded his first album, ``Drums of Passion,'' and began a life dedicated to giving people a sense of the significance of African culture....
``I grew up in a traditional African society, where you wake up to hear the drums singing. When a child is born, there is music and dance. When you come of age, the rites of passage are celebrated with music and dance; when you take a giant step in life - when you get married - people come from all over and participate in this, with music and dance. ... The elders, when the moon is shining at night, get together and tell stories that have morals to communicate, and that's how you learn about life.''
When he travels to teach or perform, Olatunji focuses on the drums not just as a component of music but as an essential part of life and as something that American blacks, in particular, need to discover.
``The African drumming is the `I am.' This is what the African-American doesn't know about. He can have every model of car, or buy and do whatever he wants, but if he has no image of himself or herself, he won't appreciate it. Rhythm is the soul of life. Every cell in your body or mine is in constant rhythm, or frequency. No matter what I use, if you listen to my recordings, percussion predominates. That's the source - that's where I'm coming from.''
Olatunji's ties to percussion and to his African roots have not kept him from appreciating other kinds of music, including the new Afro-pop that has developed from the mixing of African music with pop, rock, and elements of modern technology. But he believes that mixing music from different cultures raises complicated issues.
``It involves a truthful examination of one's self, not just to say: Here's something new. You have to keep on working with it until you can make a marriage, so that one complements the other. We must realize that going through the process of acculturation is not easy. We have to be careful that we don't get so involved in the modern tradition that we forget the past. The past and the present are linked together.''
Today, Olatunji continues to travel, and he is looking for a new location for his New York-based Olatunji Center of African Culture. He also plans to open a branch of the center in Washington, D.C., and has established an African aid project called Voices of Africa, which will sponsor benefit concerts featuring African artists.
As if this weren't enough, he's also co-writing a book about African musical instruments, and he has put out two albums (on the Rykodisc label) since last year: ``Drums of Passion: The Beat,'' featuring guitarist Carlos Santana and Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira, and ``Drums of Passion: The Invocation,'' featuring 11 percussionists and seven vocalists. Mickey Hart, percussionist with the Grateful Dead, produced and plays on the albums.
Next year Olatunji will travel to more than 75 countries and will appear at the Festival of the Arts in Morocco - a month-long celebration of black culture.
But his biggest dream is to establish a center for African performing arts in his hometown, Ajido, Nigeria, a center ``where all the best in the culture will come to a central point. Where you can experience the tradition of the music of the Pygmies, the Masai, the Watusi.''
His voice fades to a whisper. Olatunji is deep in thought.