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Goodbye, Drummer of Passion

Pioneering drummer Babatunde Olatunji died on April 6.

Baba recorded many firsts after leaving Nigeria in 1950 for Morehouse College on a scholarship. He became the first African musician to chart in the US, following the release in 1959 of his Drums of Passion album on Columbia Records. He quickly became a fixture in music, cultural and civil rights circles, joining Martin Luther King for his 1963 March on Washington and breaking new creative ground in collaboration with jazz musicians (with John Coltrane's assistance, he would also go on to found a school to teach Harlem's youth African dance and music).

Over the decades, Baba continued to wield outsize, if under-recognized, influence on American popular culture -- one of his drum students, Mickey Hart would rise to prominence as part of the Grateful Dead; in the late 1980s, with Bill Lee, bassist and a former Morehouse classmate, he would help with the music for films by Lee's son, a little known but promising filmmaker named Spike. There was perhaps no single more important bridge between the African and African-American communities than Baba. He was a true pioneer.

It is a supreme irony that Baba's accomplishments were not as well known among his people as they ought to have been; particularly for those of us in the US, who have benefited unwittingly from his pioneering cultural ambassadorship, we must not lose this opportunity to pay our respects.

Biographical info, including the New York Times obituary, can be accessed at Drums of Passion.

Dayo Ogunyemi

South African master dead

Baba Mokoena Seakoeng, the finest Mbaqanga guitar, has fallen silent.

Baba, well known collaborator with Madala Kunene, and recently touring with Mafikizolo, died this Easter weekend in Johannesburg.

Simon Baba Mokoena was born at Umkumbane in Durban in the late 40's. He started making music at the age of 12, playing a home-made guitar made from a five-litre oil container. At 17, he picked up his brother's acoustic guitar and has never looked back. Baba's first gig was with a group called Mhlathi and His Comets, whom he stayed with for four years. Next he met Dick Khoza, a jazz drummer. They formed a small jazz group with Pat Matshikiza on piano and Victor Gaba on bass, playing gigs around Durban.

After two years Baba left the group and went to Johannesburg to play Mbaqanga, because he had always wanted to play African music. He played for a group called Izintombi Zamangwane. This was followed by guitar work on Gibson Kente's musicals Sikhalo and How Long.

Baba joined the resident band at the Pelican Night Club, playing with Winston 'Mankunku' Ngozi and Khaya Mahlangu, to name but a few. This stint at the Pelican was a chance to explore different kinds of music - Mbaqanga, Jazz and Rhythm and Blues - and to meet names like American jazz organ player Jimmy Smith and US group The Realistic.

Baba then moved back to Durban, gigging in clubs playing 'Top 40' hits until he met 'Sarafina' playwright Mbongeni Ngema. He was impressed and asked Baba to join the band for his musical 'Township Fever', which opened at Johannesburg's Market Theatre in 1991. The show went on to tour America, opening in New York. After the 'Township Fever' tour, Baba worked with Letta Mbuli and Caiphus Semenya in shows around South Africa. Baba returned to Mbongeni Ngema's company, touring Europe with 'Sarafina', 'Magic at 4am' and 'Mama'.

On his return from Europe in 1993 Baba added his artful guitar playing to Sipho Gumede's Melt 2000 release, Down Freedom Avenue (BW051) with Madala Kunene. During the 1994 Outernational Meltdown recordings with MELT 2000 in Johannesburg Baba met and recorded with Airto Moreira and Jose Neto. In 1999, Baba teamed up with Madala Kunene to prepare the recording of a collaborative album for Melt. The album Madala Kunene & Baba Mokoena Serakoeng, entitled First Double 1&2, released in 2002, was nominated for the 2003 SAMA awards.

Baba appeared at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Cape Town in 2002 with PedXulu a 12 piece orchestra gathering on one stage the finest Pedi, Xhosa and Zulu players.

Baba and Madala launched their album last August at the Arts Alive Festival uniting the 4 top Maskandi guitarist (Shiyani Ncgobo and Mkhalelwa 'Spector' Ngwazi ) on one stage for a unique performance.

He was a very sought after session musician and his guitar playing earned him a lot praise from all age groups he recently toured frequently with Mafikizolo.

Robert Trunz
Musical Energy Loud Truth CC

Published on 11 May 2003

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