Babatunde Olatunji bangs the drum slowly -- at least long enough for his audience to get the beat. Then his hands bounce faster and faster off the skins until hands all over the room are pounding surfaces.
"the whole world goes around in rhythm," the great African percussionist told a crowd of almost 400 who packed a room at the Museum of African Art yesterday to hear Olatunji and his accompanist, Jen Marie-diatta, give a lecture-demonstration of African drum music and dance.
Several hundred had to be turned away. But Olatunji observed philosophically that he himself had had "many disappointments" in his 25 years of trying to instruct Americans about African music.
"i have no recording company now," said the cheerful 52-year-old veteran as he adjusted his hand-woven fila [African cap]. "most of them are not interested in what I'm doing now. They say it's not commercial enough."
Twenty years ago, his album "Drums of Passion," which came out under the name Michael Olatunji, stirred great excitement about African music. It was then that Olatunji learned first-hand about the commercial music business.
"people said, 'Look, do you really want to put Babatunde Olatunji on your album? Don't give us all that Babatunde stuff. Give us an English name.' So I said 'Michael.'"
"in 1958, he continued, "I didn't know anything about contracts, so I put everything in the public domain. So I don't get anything from 'drums of Passion'.
"now radio stations don't play my records more than once a year. They play 'Nothin's Gonna Stop Me Now . . .'"
Olatunji grew up in Ajido, a small town in Nigeria. He graduated from Georgia's Morehouse College in 1954, then went on to study public administration at New York University, where he completed all the work for a Ph.D. except his dissertation. But it was always African drum music at the center of his life.
"the media haven't done justice, not just to me, but to what I'm doing," Olatunji said yesterday with a friendly smile, as though apologizing for what might be taken as self-promotion.
What he tries to do is to combat what he calls "the Hollyhood image of Africa -- Tarzan and Jane" by both playing and explaining African music around the country. He's doing that now thanks to a national Endowment grant the enables him to travel to train yound musicians in his art. He worries, though, about the loss of traditional Affrican culture, even in Africa.
"do you know," he told the attentive crowd, which was about 25 percent white, "that in Africa today there are people who can't even sing the lullabies that their mothers sang to them? We've become more English than the English, more French than the French."
Olatunji would like to see African music and culture enter school curricula more than they have, but so far he's found the project frustrating.
"the administrations are not interested in including things like that. Ninety percent of black-studies program don't have an African language. Any black-studies program that doesn't include one or two African languages is not a genuine program."
Grants like the one from the National Endowment have not been easy to obtain. "Exxon doesn't support my kind of music," he laughs, "though the get oil from my country."
In New York City, where he lives, Olatunji directs the Center for African Culture. Right now, the Center needs a building. Unfortunately, there seems to be more money around for operating expenses then for places operate.
"i've applied for grants, but they don't give grants to buy buildings," he says.Commenting on the sort of help that is available, he adds dryly, "how can I hire an administrator for $15,000 to administer $10,000?"
Fortunately, none of that bureaucratic busywork gets him down when it comes time to perform. Olatunji charms children and parents alike. He explains the rich associations of his songs, demonstrates African dance motions that are a source of much theatrical movement with which we are more familiar and guides the audience in making living flutes out of their hands. And, oh yes, he plays his drums.
"i take out all of my problems on the drums," Olatunji said as he left to continue his teaching chores elsewhere. Judging by his reception, there wasn't a single person present who would have preferred to stamp his feet to a defferent drummer. CAPTION: Picture, Babatunde Olatunji, by James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post