Global Beat: Sikiru Adepoju

Jeff Tamarkin on June 23, 2020
Global Beat: Sikiru Adepoju

The Mozart of the talking drum assembles a multinational cast, including a handful
of jamband luminaries, to channel a unifying, universal spirit.

In 1985, when the  Nigerian musician Sikiru Adepoju first set foot in the United States, he had never heard of the Grateful Dead. Three years later, he was onstage with them, playing the talking drum—his instrument of choice—in an arena filled with New Year’s Eve revelers.

“At the time, I had no idea of how famous the Grateful Dead were,” Adepoju says. “It took place during one of their drum jams. Mickey Hart had invited me and a few other guest drummers to join in. It was my first time working with a band in which members take turns performing; for example, the string musicians might leave the stage to the drummers. I also liked that their music was always changing.”

Adepoju admits that a bit of culture shock overtook him that night, but the encouragement he received from the audience was something understood universally. “It was a great honor and an uplifting experience to be in front of an audience that had never seen me perform before—and to receive the kind of welcoming jubilation that the Deadheads gave me from the first night,” he says.

Adepoju, who comes from a family of talking drummers, would subsequently be called back into service more than a dozen times before the Dead split in 1995, and his association with the surviving band members has continued. Hart has utilized him on numerous projects, including a pair of Grammy winning LPs: 1991’s Planet Drum, which nabbed the first Best World Music Album award, and 2007’s Global Drum Project.

“He’s the Mozart of his instrument—a virtuoso talking drummer” says Hart, “I’ve never heard anyone like him. The thing about Sikiru that’s really interesting— extraordinary actually—is that he has this openness to change to different grooves. He’s able to play outside the box. And he’s been working with very strange bedfellows for many years, like [tabla master] Zakir Hussain and me. We’ve played together so much, and he has this ability to do these rhythmic excursions; we’ve had great musical moments.”

Hart first heard Adepoju play 32 years ago, when the talking drum innovator was called in to lay down some parts on a recording he was producing for another Nigerian drum master, Babatunde Olatunji. Olatunji, who had been living and working in the United States since the 1950s, was, by that time, a global legend who had headlined Radio City Music Hall, played with John Coltrane, been named-checked in a Dylan tune and written the track that Santana would remake as “Jingo.” It was a huge thrill for Adepoju to meet him; he was honored to contribute to the two albums that resulted from the sessions with Hart, Drums of Passion: The Invocation and Drums of Passion: The Beat. Sikiru subsequently joined Olatunji’s group, also called Drums of Passion (named after the 1959 U.S. debut album by Olatunji), and gained renown throughout the U.S. Over the past few decades, Adepoju has added his sound to recordings by Stevie Wonder, The String Cheese Incident and many others, while continuing to work with Hart.

“It was joyful to come across a Nigerian doing his style of music in the Western world,” says Adepoju about Olatunji. “Baba’s music reconnected me with the roots of African music, which are drum and dance. That’s the type of music that I grew up playing with my father [who was also a master drummer]. Seeing Baba promoting African drumming and culture gave me hope and the confidence that, by adding my talking drum to his music, we would go to a higher place together.”

The lead track on the first of those two Hart-produced albums, “Ajaja,” now serves as the first song on OPE (which translates to “Give Thanks”), a new release on MansMark Records spearheaded by Adepoju and credited to the Riddim Doctors. Adepoju has assembled a multinational group, featuring players from Nigeria, India, Puerto Rico, South Africa, Iran, the U.S., and Trinidad and Tobago, including Saminu Adepoju, Sikiru’s younger brother, who also plays the talking drum. Several guests from the jam world also contribute, including current Dead & Company keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, longtime Bob Weir collaborator and onetime Primus drummer Jay Lane and Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools, who played with Adepoju in the Mickey Hart Band.

“Ajaja,” says Adepoju, means “the one spirit that rules the whole universe. The song also pays homage to our great ancestors’ ever-living spirits, in joyful remembrance of their contributions and their presence at all times. ‘Ajaja’ is a prayer-song that Baba used to open every show with.” The new take on the number features alternating vocal parts from the Nigerian singer Bola Abimbola and a sampled Olatunji, with Adepoju providing the choruses. Hussain also appears on the track. Since the death of Olatunji in 2003, at age 75, Adepoju believes that one of his own artistic missions is to carry on the work that his mentor began. “Olatunji was special,” he says, “because he elected to be an ambassador of African culture with his high level of education, even though traditional drummers were not highly regarded in this society. He opened the minds of the people of the Western world to African music and culture.

“My hope is that OPE will rejuvenate the spirit of Baba’s fans and followers because of the style of the music and the appearance of Baba himself on the album,” says Adepoju. “I hope it opens many multigenerational minds to the added new flavors, expertly blended by the star-studded group of cultural exponents from diverse countries.”

One person who believes Adepoju has the mojo to accomplish that goal is Hart. “Even though he can play all the indigenous rhythms of Nigeria, he’s kind of turned it into jazz in a way,” he says. “He has that ability; he has so much control. His technique is beautiful, flawless. He’s the best.