The Master Babatunde
It all started at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California in 1990. I was there for their traditional (in those days) 4th of July weekend celebration with Babatunde Olatunji – a Yoruban drummer and singer who is often called the ‘Godfather of African Music in America’ and known for his work with John Coltrane, Santana, and the Grateful Dead.
A roaring fire in a big stone hearth on a big wooden deck, a star-filled, clear night sky overhead, and the pounding ocean below us. It was an epic setting for an experience that would soon change my life forever.
Olatunji’s group was set up in the corner, in front of the fire. His group comprised mostly of African drums and vocals, and I was sitting behind the band just tapping lightly on a little conga drum, a sweaty crowd throwing down pretty hard right in front of them. Suddenly I noticed a guy in the band, wearing a long white tunic waving towards me to come forward. I had to look around me to make sure that he wasn’t motioning to someone else, because I couldn’t figure out why he would be trying to get MY attention. I pointed to myself, and he nodded “yes, you!” and then motioned for me to come in. I stood up, in a kind of tunnel vision moment, and he just stepped aside, and welcomed me to play his congas which were right up front.
In a trance-like state, I jumped on board the already fast moving train of rhythms and closed my eyes. Immediately a conversation of beats and accents started between myself and the powerful drummer to my right. As my head began to tilt back in a kind of bliss state, I opened my eyes for just a moment to see all the stars blinking at us. My eyes closed again and I melted right into the music.
All at once, I was out of my body, floating above the whole scene in an ‘astral’ travel moment, and could view the dancers and musicians from overhead about 50 feet or so. I looked up at the canopy of stars all seemingly pulsing to the music, and then looked down again at the celebration below me. I had the sensation that the music had popped me out of my Earthly body, and my Astral body had taken over, riding on the trance rhythms.
The pulsing of the music permeated my entire being. I was swimming in the soup of Galaxies, bathing in the celestial play of lights, planets and star systems. As the harmonies of voices blasted me far out into the Universe, the Golden umbilical cord of the rhythm made me feel like I was home, in the middle of Space. Each beat was like a energetic blast, propelling me further and further into unknown realms. It was serene and glorious. It was a timeless moment of awe – I was deep inside/outside my known ‘reality’ and didn’t have a care in the world.
I gazed down again from my hovering point above the deck party. What an amazing thing to witness oneself engaged in an activity while being removed – I was ‘up here’ but was at the same time was ‘down there.’ I wondered at the sensation, curious at how it all worked.
But then I realized, “Oh shit!. I am playing music, I had better be in my body fully to be able to do this right! Afterall, I had been invited to play along and didn’t want to be the source of trainwrecking the vibe due to being out of my body!” So I flew back down, returned fully into my body and opened my eyes.
All the while, the ‘conversation’ of beats and accents had continued with the drummer to my right. And as I opened my eyes, I realized it was Babatunde himself, just smiling away at me. The show finished after the next couple of numbers and I profusely thanked Babatunde and the group for letting me play with them. After that I was high for about a month. And I was hooked for life – on the trance of polyrhythms!
MJ Greenmountain is a central founding member of the world fusion band Hamsa Lila. He has released an album of his solo work entitled “MJ” and currently performs as a solo artist as well as with his band. He is vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, producer, percussionist, and is also involved in the healing arts, is a writer, and a photographer. He currently resides in Santa Cruz, California.