A little more than six months ago, a thirty-seven-year-old African prince who sings almost exclusively in Yoruba, a Nigerian tribal language, put out an album called Juju Music. The record, the first American release by King Sunny Adé, wasn’t a big commercial success – Island Records, which distributes the LP, says it has sold about 60,000 copies. But its impact was enormous. The New York Times‘ chief rock critic, for example, hailed Adé’s arrival on these shores as one of the most significant pop-music events of the decade. In the Village Voice‘s poll of more than 200 of the nation’s critics, Adé’s album placed fourth, just behind Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. And a recent tour by Adé and his seventeen-piece African Beats was so successful that their Los Angeles concert had to be moved to a larger hall to meet the ticket demand, while an extra show was added in New York.
Adé, a gentle, soft-spoken man, seems to take the accolades in his stride. “Everything has its own time,” he said, while in Washington D.C. for the first date of his tour. “I think it’s time for African music to come.”
Adé may be right. Over the past couple of years, several rock groups have incorporated Africanisms into their musical vocabulary. Bow Wow Wow’s thundering drum patterns and Adam Ant’s Kings of the Wild Frontier LP were influenced by recordings of Burundi tribal drumming; Peter Gabriel’s latest album, Security, features traditional Ethiopian pipes on one song and Ghanaian drumming on another; and the Talking Heads have absorbed African ideas about rhythm arrangement into their New Wave dance music.
But Sunny Adé is the first native African to attempt to break through in this country. His music – which is called juju – is a heavily rhythmic, sweetly mesmerizing concoction. And at the tour opener in Washington, Adé and his African Beats were nothing short of exhilarating. Having scaled down the group’s usual four- to eight-hour show to a more manageable three hours for his American fans, Adé somehow managed to combine the cheerful overdrive of Bruce Springsteen with the fluid kinesics of a classic James Brown show, all the while remaining as casual and charming as Smokey Robinson.
Although snatches of tunes from Juju Music cropped up throughout the evening, they seemed less the focus of the proceedings than a convenient context for the ebb and flow of the rhythmic interplay. Dressed in a loose, African-style tunic and pants and shiny, brown cowboy boots, Adé sang and played guitar with consummate ease, taking charge without ever seeming to exert authority. In this respect, the music was truly cooperative effort. Even when guitarist Bob Ohiri unleashed a jangly solo or pedal-steel player Ademola Adepoju interjected a few swooping figures, they were only stepping into a gap that had just been vacated by one of their bandmates.
This sense of musical community extended into the audience, where an unlikely mix of expatriate Africans, government workers and college students danced together as if they were part of some global block party. By the second set, the audience had even adopted the African practice of dancing onto the stage and pressing money to the foreheads of the sweating performers as a show of appreciation. By concert’s end, the stage was littered with wet and crumpled dollar bills, and it was easy to understand why Sunny Adé had been proclaimed a king in his homeland.
In Nigeria, where they also refer to him as the “chairman,” Sunny Adé is, according to all reports, a superstar. “He can’t really move about at daytime,” said Martin Meissonnier, Adé’s manager and producer. “Some time ago, when we were passing through customs, 300 people carried him through, screaming. It is really amazing. He is very, very popular. Policemen recognize him immediately. Even the armed robbers, they don’t touch him.”
Though Adé was born to one of the royal families of the Yoruba tribe – the people who inhabit what is now southwestern Nigeria – his musical origins were actually quite humble. He turned professional in 1963, playing in the ensemble of Moses Olaiya – a musician, Adé noted, who has since turned to comedy. Three years later, playing secondhand instruments given to him by a friend of Olaiya’s, Adé formed his first version of the African Beats. In 1967, the band attracted the interest of African Sounds, a private label based in the Nigerian capital, Lagos.
Adé’s first record, however, was an unqualified stiff. “They only sold twenty-three copies,” he said. But his next single sold an astonishing 500,000 copies. What made the difference? “We made the single in praise of the football team,” Adé said slyly.