Ogunnaike lived in Nigeria until the age of four, when he and his family moved to the United States. He was 11 years old when he received his first drum, but his interest in rhythm took shape during mealtimes while he was living in Africa.
“I started drumming when I was a really small kid in Nigeria. My uncle, he was a family friend but I called him my uncle, would bang on the table and have me bang back to him. So I’ve been banging on things since I could walk, essentially. I got my first drum when my grandfather came from Nigeria to visit us in the States. He brought me a talking drum, which is a two-headed drum. You play it with a stick, and you can change the pitch by squeezing the drum. I would play with that all the time. It drove my parents crazy.”
For the past three years, Ogunnaike has worked on mastering the djembe, a West African drum.
“When I got to Harvard, I took an African dance class with the Ensemble’s current instructor, Joh Camara, and I was amazed by his djembe playing. The djembe is kind of an hourglass-shaped drum; it has goatskin on the top, and there’s an iron ring on the rim. It has a really distinctive, sharp sound. I’d never seen djembe playing. I’d only seen Nigerian drumming. So I bought a djembe from him, and he gave me a few lessons. It’s an amazing instrument because it’s deceptively complex. You have three notes only, a bass note, a tone note, and a slap. But with those three notes, you have tremendous possibilities of what to do with the rhythm.”
Ogunnaike’s past credentials include playing bass in a blues group, strumming guitar for a “fusion Cuban band,” and drumming with The Harvard University Drummers (THUD). Now he is a member of the Pan-African Drum and Dance Ensemble, a group that he co-founded in the fall and which will be playing in Saturday’s Cultural Rhythms show.
“My freshman year, I wanted to start up something like the Ensemble. I talked to a few people at the [Office for the Arts] and kind of got the run-around. But this year the Africa Creativity Initiative had money to fund something like this. So two of my friends and I worked together with the Africa Creativity Initiative and came up with this group. I think we have around 30 or 35 people in the ensemble. We have about five to eight percussionists, and everyone else dances.”
Ogunnaike describes drumming as a learning experience and encourages others to try it regardless of their background.
“Everyone should try drumming. Drumming is just good for you, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. And there’s a lot you can learn from it. Drumming has helped me to shift my perspective from trying to advance myself and my own agenda to trying to live in balance with the rhythms that other people have. All of us exist in different ways. The thing to do is not to try to force everyone to follow the same beat, but to try and get everyone’s beats in synch with each other. It’s about the way you live your life and how you learn from other people.”