Richard Olatunde Baker percussionist

Richard Olatunde Baker, percussionist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My father’s African record collection was my first inspiration to try and make music, but although I dreamt of being a musician of some kind, I had no idea how or where to make this dream a reality, as my parents told me that it should only be a hobby. I grew up in UK with an English father and a Nigerian (Yoruba) mother, to the sounds of so many different types of African music being played on records at home. There was probably more guitar based music such as Congolese rumba/soukous and South African Township Jive in my father’s incredible record collection than there was specifically drumming music, so I actually picked up guitar as my first (self-taught) instrument. I used to record at home using two cassette players, feeding one back in to the other, before forming my first school band, although that was more or less punk music! It’s very important to remember that back in the early 1970s, African music wasn’t considered cool in English suburbia, so despite loving this music at home, we’d always switch it off when our school friends or locals came by the house! In fact I’d go as far to say that the daily racism we experienced would have definitely been even worse if we’d openly played these kinds of records at that time.

Returning to the drums, I remember hearing the sound of the Yoruba taking drums before ever seeing them and I actually thought that it might have been some kind of bass guitar! I eventually found some second had talking drums in London music shops and I taught myself a little, much as I had done with guitar. This was before Youtube or social media, so the only access I had was when musicians such as Sunny Ade came to UK or if I went to African parties and events in London. This was how I eventually found my first teacher, Adesose Wallace, who took me through all the basics as well as training in speaking Yoruba proverbs/praises on the talking drum. There are thousands of these and a talking drummer is expected to know what to play and when to play it, fluently, accurately and instinctively – no easy task! I was later trained by another prominent talking drummer, Ayandosu Ayantola, a who brought me onboard as his talking support drummer and introduced me onto the London Yoruba talking drum scene. Before not too long, I found myself playing with some of the very drummers who I’d been listening to from my father’s record collection, such as Simoni Adeleke who played with Ebenezer Obey and Moussa Ayandele, who played with Sunny Ade. It’s also worth noting that Nigerian parties go on all night, so drummers often play for several hours overnight.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The greatest challenges have been trying to interface two different head spaces; when I was working in recording studios as an assistant engineer/producer and simultaneously trying to become a serious musician. I spent many years working as a studio assistant, learning how to line up tape machines, use various large mixing desks, understanding microphones and to record and mix many different genres of music professionally. I did all of this whilst also learning drums and percussion – it was exhausting to say the least. I was always told by people in the industry that I couldn’t do both, so I set out to make sure that I could indeed do both!

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

My group Eardrum ( have released several albums and E.P.s which I also engineered/mixed/produced myself. The first one was voted Mojo magazine’s Avant Garde album of the month back in 2000 and the last one was awarded 4 stars out of 5 by Songlines magazine in 2016. The music is wildly experimental, fusing various African (and some Indian) percussion with sci-fi-esque electronics and jazz woodwind instruments. I have also created some well played remixes of a group called Yaabafunk and composed music for Akoko restaurant in the West End, amongst others.

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

I’m a massive fan of the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti and his three percussionists, the sound of which I enjoy trying to singularly duplicate, when I perform with artists who play his music. The rythmn is relentless but has quite a specific feel and also relies on the correct, organic sounding instruments.

There is a style of Nigerian talking drum music called Fuji which I also adore playing; very tight syncopated but jerky rythmns that are often very much “off beat”.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

Without doubt, making musical instruments – sometimes for specific performances/recordings and reskinning the talking drums and other drums, as well as general percussion crafting. Its an intrinsic part of playing traditional instruments, it’s not even considered an added bonus, it’s part of the whole process. It means that I can literally choose my own sound, down to the very finest detail. The more knowledge I gain of the materials and their various behaviours, the more accurate I can be with creating the character of the instrument. It really does gives you an unparalleled spiritual connection with your instrument when you have made it yourself. For example,the Yoruba talking drum skins are constantly being stretched as we squeeze the tensioning leather when it’s played, so it’s important to keep the leather sounding fresh as possible – similar to how a guitarist needs to be able to maintain and change their own guitar strings.

I also love outdoor exercise and cooking because, like music, they keep me feeling spiritually nourished.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I actually don’t! I go with the ebb and flow of work as it comes in, but the one thing I definitely choose is only play in projects where there is genuine synergy with the music and people onboard.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I think outdoor venues are my favourite which also tells you which kind of weather me and my instruments prefer. I remember feeling so inspired when I performed with Mulatu Astatke at Jazz a Vienne in 2018, which is basically staged in a huge Roman amphitheatre with a capacity for over seven thousand people. The acoustics are so clear despite the hugeness of the venue, I felt so close with the audience.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

I think that by bringing more diversity into who is actually playing classical music will automatically grow the audience. This is where I must salute Chineke! Orchestra and Rebeca Omordia’s African Concert Series. Without changing the landscape first, you cannot expect change to ever happen!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Definitely playing in Nigeria in 2008 with the late great Tony Allen at the French Cultural Institute in Lagos. It was like a very special homecoming for Tony and the first time I’d performed in Nigeria.That same night I was also playing with Seun Kuti (son of the late great Fela Anikulapo Kuti) and the Egypt 80 band – a band of musicians I used to watch on VHS video at home in my youth. Secondly, I must mention playing with Ethiopean composer Dr.Mulatu Astatke in 2017 at the Sheraton Hotel in Addis Ababa Ethiopia, alongside some traditional Ethiopean musicians. It was another very special homecoming concert for Dr.Astatke and a great joy for me to introduce talking drum into another genre of music.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Getting paid for your expressing your own joy is already a success in my opinion. Nevertheless, I’d say that being asked to play on different projects by musicians/composers from completely different genres is always very wonderful. It hints global recognition, which I believe is my ultimate goal. Creating a body of work that I can call my legacy is also part of this.

What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?

Find your own voice as soon as you can, don’t be afraid, even if people label you a maverick; that’s actually a compliment. Whilst practice is obviously so important, being true to your own spirit is the most powerful thing you can do and will yield better results in the long run.

Richard Olatunde Baker performs in the African Concert Series at London’s Wigmore Hall on Saturday 13 May. Info/tickets

“Born and raised in the UK of English-Nigerian parentage, I grew up listening to mostly African music and later developed a strong interest in various experimental/avant garde genres.

My musical journey began aged 11, as a self-taught guitarist, although I naturally gravitated towards drums during my early twenties. I was lucky to be trained by traditional Yoruba talking drum masters, many of whom featured on the records I’d listened to as a youth. I also worked with many other African Pro-percussionists in the 1990’s. My drumming foundations are firmly rooted in playing frequently at all-night African community events and in African Theatre in the UK.”

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