A Master Drummer Shares His Story

Who knew that drums could talk? After an energetic and informative hour spent in the virtual company of Kozza Babumba, a group of Middle School students learned not only the origin of the talking drum but also about this master drummer’s distinguished career and the beloved grandfather who shaped his life.

“Greetings Class 7! I brought along one of my drums,” said the easy-going guest artist after an enthusiastic introduction from Patricia Norchi, Coordinator of the Music Program and Middle School Music Teacher. Mr. Babumba also gave equally mesmerizing presentations to Classes 4 and 6.

From his box in the Zoom room, it was impossible to miss Mr. Babumba’s ear-to-ear smile or the beautiful instrument resting in front of him.

Explaining that this West African drum was called a djembe – pronounced “jem-bay” – he noted they are carved from a single piece of wood and typically topped with animal skin (although his version featured a synthetic covering for environmental reasons). The center of the drum was hollow, as Mr. Babumba demonstrated by holding it up, bottom end toward the camera.

For a few minutes, he played his djembe, strategically rotating his hands to achieve an array of sounds. By striking the edge of the drum, for example, he produced the higher pitched “tone.” Hitting the center resulted in the lower, deeper “bass.”

Mr. Babumba, who performs widely, told the students that he wouldn’t be a drummer at all if it hadn’t been for one profoundly influential individual: his grandfather, Babatunde Olatunji (1927-2003), a Grammy Award-winning Nigerian band leader and percussionist known as “Baba.”

“I’m here because of him, because of the drums he taught me to play and the stories he told me,” Mr. Babumba said, adding that he began playing drums on stage with Baba when he was just six years old. Although he was born in Boston, he spent long stretches in Africa as a child and attended boarding school in Nigeria for several years.

A member of the Yoruba people and the Awori tribe, Mr. Babumba’s grandfather hailed from the village of Ajido in Lagos, Nigeria, a thriving center of traditional African music and dance. It was here that the talking drum became an essential component of tribal society. With a screen share, a black-and-white photograph of a beaming young Mr. Olatunji holding his talking drum popped into view.

In contrast to the djembe, this versatile drum is covered on both the top and bottom and lined all around with leather in a string-like pattern. The guest artist invited Ms. Norchi, who actually owns a talking drum, to show hers to the Class 7 students, who were Zooming in from home during this particular week.

Played to honor milestones like births, weddings and deaths, Mr. Babumba said, the talking drum also served as a vital form of communication. In expert hands, important announcements, such as impending danger, were broadcast to neighboring villages by squeezing the drum’s sides to make a variety of sounds, which resembled phrases in the tonal languages of West Africa like Yoruba and Fon.

Mr. Babumba then launched into the fascinating story of his grandfather’s transformation into a legendary performing artist. After receiving a scholarship to attend Morehouse College, Mr. Olatunji journeyed by boat to the United States and soon immersed himself in a life informed by both music and activism. A classmate of Martin Luther King, Jr., he played drums at student-led marches and in Harlem clubs.

At one auspicious performance, the speaker continued, his grandfather attracted the attention of a record label executive who subsequently offered him a recording contract, an exceedingly rare opportunity for a Black man in 1957. Mr. Olatunji went on to record his seminal album, “Drums of Passion,” which introduced the world to the power and beauty of West African music. Over the course of his celebrated career, he collaborated with countless luminaries including Dizzy Gillespie, Aretha Franklin, John Coltrane and Nina Simone.

“He also found ways to be an ambassador,” said Mr. Babumba, sharing a photo of Mr. Olatunji with Malcolm X. “He wanted to make the world a better place for all of us through music.” The speaker emphasized how much he enjoyed carrying on his grandfather’s legacy.

Throughout his talk, Mr. Babumba paused to hear from the students – and there were many thoughtful questions and comments.

“Your presentation was really engaging and fun to listen to,” said one.

“Your drumming was so good!” added another.

A third, who told Mr. Babumba that she was also from Nigeria, asked which part of the country he liked best.

As their time together came to an end, this talented guest artist thanked Class 7 for their interest and attention. “This was so delightful,” he remarked. “You are an incredible group of scholars.”