THE SUNNY KINGTHIS NIGERIAN SUPERSTAR RULES THE REALM OF WORLD MUSIC
A friend of mine tells a story about his first King Sunny Ade concert. It was the friend's first date with the woman who would later become his wife. Anticipating the usual droning, chunk-a-chunk-a-chunk reggae show, he had taken care to alter his consciousness before entering the arena. Pleasurable as the stony state was, it left him completely unprepared for the sights and sounds of King Sunny Ade. Fronting his usual megaband of 17 pieces, Ade swept onto the stage clad in sandals, a glowing, knee-length white tunic and matching pants. Immediately his five guitarists began their superfunky, interlocking figures. Using rattles, shakers, bells and drums, the band's half-dozen drummers erupted into the polyrhythms that give juju music its fire. My friend was speechless. By the time the talking drums started, he was up at the stage edge, eyes closed, bobbing on his knees, babbling in his date's ear. Before the concert was over, he thought he heard the drums saying words to him. During the encore, he even thought he heard them tell him, "Goodbye."
People seldom get married as a result of it, although seeing King Sunny Ade (that's "Ah-day") for the first time is an enthralling experience, one that's likely to open your mind to the world of music outside the bass-drums-and-guitar tunnel vision of the U.S. and the U.K.
Ade, in fact, was one of the sparks for the boom in so-called "world music." Ade's first U.S. tour here in 1984 opened insular American eyes to the fact that Africa is rich in infectious pop music of all stripes--from quiet, protoblues laments to the high-spirited, high-stepping form known as "highlife." Born Prince Sunday Adeniyi, King Sunny plays an indigenous Nigerian music called juju. Today it takes the form of long grooves that combine Cuban drums, the smooth pedal-steel guitar of American country music, the high shimmy of the Hawaiian steel guitar and the accordion of British ballroom dancing. At the center of the juju sound is the distinctive talking drum. Faceted like steel drums but with two heads, talking drums are pressurized to give them an unusual, variable pitch and resonance. Skilled players can make the drums sound as if they are forming words. What comes out of this unlikely sounding mishmash is an unpredictable, energetic dance music dominated by percussion, plucky guitar parts and multipart harmonies. Dynamically, juju covers everything from a hushed whisper to rolling thunder. And because juju acts tend to be large, with lots of call-and-response vocals, any juju band worth watching needs a strong leader who, like Ade, becomes both traffic cop and front man. The most intriguing thing about juju, though--and what makes it such a different experience to Western ears--is that it manages to be both light and silky and downright hard-driving.
The origins of juju remain fuzzy; musicologists aren't even sure where the word comes from. They think it refers to a small, hexagonal tambourine used by the Brazilian community in Lagos, the capital city of Nigeria. Since its first appearance in the mid-1920s, juju has evolved from crude roots music to a glossy, international form of pop. Unlike a lot of other roots musical forms, juju has always embraced advances in technology. After World War II, juju musicians quickly began to use then-revolutionary electric instruments and amplification.
Ade is one of the few performers in all of popular music who is able to use technology, like samples and guitar effects, to enhance his music without allowing the technology to engulf it.
This willingness to stay vital has given juju the widest appeal of all the diverse forms of African popular music. Juju stars like Ebenezer Obey and King Sunny Ade are now as well-known internationally as the Paul Simon-assisted South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Juju artists, and African musicians in general, tend to have prolific recording careers. Ade, for example, has made more than 40 full-length albums since 1974. In Nigeria his albums, which are released almost exclusively in cassette form, regularly go gold, on the way to platinum, before they're even shipped. Unfortunately, only a handful of Ade's recordings are available in this country, most of them from his early 1980s association with Island Records. Signed in 1982, he made three albums for Island--Juju Music, Synchro-System and Aura. Although none sold well--Island dropped him in 84--the three remain practically the only way, besides dealing with special-order importers, that U.S. fans can hear King Sunny on record. Happily, though, Ade is about to get another crack at a major Western record label. Signed to Sound Wave Records, Warner-Elektra-Atlantic's new world-music imprint, he will release Live at the Hollywood Palace this September. It is a typical Ade set--a frenetic, loud-then-soft storm of juju with the King directing and coordinating the entire ensemble. When he signed with Island in the 80s, fans worried needlessly that a major-label deal meant Ade had sold out. His music, they muttered darkly, would be cleaned and tidied for unadventurous Western tastes. But one listen to the resulting albums dispelled those worries.
Like his Island records of the 80s, Live at the Hollywood Palace seems to be a breakthrough waiting to happen. It has infinitely more musical body and lyrical weight than most of the urban dance tracks or hip-hop/pop crossovers thumping across the domestic airwaves. But recordings may never be the way to success for Ade and the other juju bands. Juju, like zydeco in America, is essentially a live musical form. Juju bands like King Sunny Ade's need a crowd to inspire them; the empty recording studio may explain why many juju records come off as aimless and overlong. But one taste of juju live and the audience is hooked--hooked to the point where some listeners fall in love and begin to hear the drums speaking to them.
LONESOME LOVE ALTHOUGH HIS FAMOUS FATHER... v7-22-92
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.