Babatunde Olatunji was a Yoruba man born to be King in his region of Nigeria. Well-educated as well as initiated into traditional cultural ceremonies, he won a scholarship to Morehouse University in Atlanta where he became close friends with Dr. Martin Luther King and was student body president. While studying for a Masters degree at N.Y.U. his musical talent was ‘discovered’ and he signed a 5 record contract with Columbia Records. With legendary Producer John Hammond he recorded ‘Drums of Passion’ which hit the Billboard charts and has sold millions of LPs and CDs. For the next 43 years he continued recording and touring the world with the drummers and dancers of the Drums of Passion, becoming friends with world leaders, presidents, and being awarded the ’Key to the City’ in many cities in the U.S. and Europe. To get the flavour, view the 1985 New Years concert at the Oakland Coliseum with the Neville Brothers and the Grateful Dead, ‘The concert that rocked the Planet”:
Gordy Ryan was playing drums in Lima Peru in 1971 when he was told to go to the Olatunji Center for African Culture on 125th St. in Harlem. After a period of apprenticeship, he joined the Drums of Passion in 1973, touring and recording with Babatunde while maintaining a diverse musical career in N.Y.C. playing with many great artists. ‘Baba’ and Gordy were close friends and ‘Baba’ is the godfather to Gordy’s 3 sons.
In the summer of 1990, Babatunde came to Hollyhock with a core team from the Drums of Passion to lead an African Rhythm and Dance workshop. They all fell in love with Hollyhock and the beauty of Desolation Sound. Baba recognized a similarity to his home in Ajido Nigeria that was situated on an ocean lagoon with tropical rainforest surrounding the village. He felt at home and was inspired to begin writing his autobiography.
We (Gordy and Zoe Ryan) saw a note on the bulletin board that 10 acre lots in the surrounding forest were going to be sold by Hollyhock. After hiking the forest areas we told Rex Weyler – the Hollyhock director at that time – that we would like to purchase lot 10, an area of thick forest with no trails. We sealed the deal with a handshake and he gave us time to get our finances together. For 10 years we returned with Babatunde to bring African music and dance to Hollyhock. Our goal was to build a Hall on the land, but we first built a small house, then a drum workshop while commuting out from our home on Broadway in NYC between tours.
On Halloween of 1998 we had a bonfire where the Hall now stands and Nori Fletcher, the Garden Manager at the time, suggested that we write our intentions and throw them in the fire. We realized at that moment that we needed to fulfill our goal of building the Hall. That fall, our friend Robbie Graham excavated the area for the foundation as a barter for crossing our land to get to Hollyhock to dig out a foundation for the expansion of the lodge. That winter, 19 storms hit the island and many mature fir trees fell in our forest. Gordy, Mark Appleyard, and Steve Ringwood yarded out the logs and took them over to Robbie’s mill.
A key moment happened on tour at Esalen in Big Sur that February. Gordy and Baba were having dinner – Gordy told Baba he was going to wait a year to build the hall, as the finances were short. Baba – whose life theme was ‘Will alone is great’ – told Gordy, “you’ll have the money to put in the foundation after this tour, then you’ll build the Hall.” He repeated that for the next 3 hours.
After the tour, we put in the foundation. Dave Shipway helped us develop our ideas and finalize the plans, Robbie milled the wood to our specs, and we began to build. In the summer of 1999, Babatunde and Professor Akiwowo led traditional Yoruba ceremonies to dedicate the Hall and bless the surrounding forest. This was an incredible experience shared by many of our friends on Cortes Island. Many hands helped in the building process, a labor of love and creation.
The final touch was the door carved by Volker, who played Baba’s music for months in his studio while creating his masterpiece depicting Baba, with Gordy, Zoe, Leon, Rhaeadr, and Ayo (the Ryan family) emanating from his hands and feet, while the drum – which is still playable after 20 years in the weather – resides in his Heart.
Members of the Drums of Passion, led by Gordy and Zoe have continued to bring African Music and Dance to the Olatunji Hall every year since 2000 when the Hall was completed, with participants from all over the world as well as 3 generations of Cortes families. Babatunde passed to the Spirit world in 2003, but the Olatunji Hall continues as a sanctuary where his vision can manifest of Mankind working together in Unity to realize we are all One Spirit on this beautiful planet which is our responsibility to protect. The goals of Hollyhock are in perfect harmony with Baba’s vision and it is appropriate that the Olatunji Hall can serve as a venue for the work of Hollyhock as well as for the yearly reunion of the Drums of Passion.
Photo Credits: Amanda Mary Creative, Al Westnedge