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King Sunny Adé may be the biggest star from third-world star to hit America since Bob Marley

King Sunny Ade

Nigerian musician King Sunny Ade performs onstage, Chicago, Illinois, August 19, 1983.

Paul Natkin/Getty

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.

From singles, the band graduated to EPs, then albums. Over the last decade, Adé has released nearly forty LPs in Nigeria, and all of them have sold at least 200,000 copies. In addition, in 1970 Adé made the first juju album on which all the music on one side was played nonstop–much in the same way juju is performed live – and three years later, he recorded the first juju double album. And in 1976, the country named him musician of the year, “and that was the time they started calling me the King Sunny Adé.”

That success has brought the singer a degree of financial security not common to most Nigerians. According to Meissonnier, Adé owns “several” houses, though he and his wife and twelve children primarily live in a large home in Lagos. He also has his own record label, Sunny Adé Records, which he started in 1974, and he owns a nightclub, called the Ariya, in Lagos.

But Adé has also remained loyal to the traditions of the Yoruba people. “He is a very traditional man and a very modern man at the same time,” said Meissonnier. “He is very close to the African traditions – paying respect to old people, singing and talking in proverbs. He is like the old Yoruba. But he is a modern man in that he can afford to be. He is a pop star in 1983.”

***

Rhythm is the key to most African music, and the current fascination with the genre stems from the fact that African musicians don’t just play different rhythms; they employ an entirely different rhythmic sensibility.

As John Miller Chernoff put it in his book African Rhythm and African Sensibility: “In Western music … the rhythm is most definitely secondary in emphasis and complexity to harmony and melody….In African music, this sensibility is almost reversed. African melodies are clear enough … but more important is the fact that in African music there are always at least two rhythms going on.” And those rhythms are not thought of separately, but rather as an interrelated whole.

The emphasis on rhythm is what makes the music attractive to rock musicians and fans. “Having a good, strong rhythm causes people to hear it first with their body before their mind has a chance to try and figure it out,” said Talking Head David Byrne, who credits Chernoff’s book with enlightening him to the intricacies of the African beat. “That way, they end up liking it before they’ve had a chance to categorize it.”

Adé’s music places so much emphasis on rhythm that almost half of his seventeen-piece band plays percussion-a fact that’s not surprising, since juju started out as drum music and the name comes from the sound the drums make.

“Juju music, way back in the early Twenties, was built up from the music played in shrines,” Adé explained. “They centralized it so that it doesn’t have anything to do with any religion or any shrine.” The music was also standardized back then so that the basic unit was a percussion ensemble called the gan-gan.

It remained that way until the early Sixties, when I.K. Dairo emerged as the leading exponent of juju. “That was the music I loved most,” Adé added. “In fact, he was one of the players who really inspired me to go into that kind of music. He developed juju by putting a guitar into it, and also by introducing the accordion and the big, talking drum.”

Adé’s first band followed the style established by Dairo, but later adopted some of the ideas of Tunde Nightingale, who performed in a juju style called Sowambe. “From there, I developed our kind of sound,” Adé explained, “which we put some innovation in by having more guitars, bass guitar, and then gradually introducing the drum kit, and here comes the vibraphone, synthesizer, so on and so forth.”

As a result, Adé’s sound is every bit as up-to-date as that of his rock counterparts. In fact, Juju Music, with its intricate textures, atmospheric synthesizer and splashes of dub production techniques, sounds a bit like what might have happened had Brian Eno produced Sun Ra.

Adé’s own taste in music ranges from such country stars as Jim Reeves (“May his soul rest in peace”), Don Williams and Dolly Parton to “people like George Benson; James Brown, because I love his dancing very much; Stevie Wonder. I took Stevie to be the example to the whole world to appreciate what God does, because he doesn’t see and he can play so well. He’s a God’s-gift talented man. But way back home, I always give my respect to traditional musicians, because within one hour they can play 200 different kinds of percussion, different sounds. Eventually, they are unlimited rhythm makers.”

***

Adé’s recent tour of America was not his first. “We came here in 1975,” he said. “We played at the Sheraton Hotel in Washington D.C. Then we played in New York, in Boston and in Detroit.” But back then, Adé didn’t have a U.S. recording contract, and his tour went almost unnoticed. Around the same time, though, another third-world performer, Bob Marley, was attracting a lot of media attention for his efforts to crack the American market.

Many critics have commented on the similarity between Adé’s current standing and Marley’s position in the mid-Seventies. Island Records, which released Juju Music on its Mango subsidiary and which was also Marley’s label, hasn’t frowned at these comparisons. And with the death of Marley, some have predicted that Adé might assume that third-world leadership role.

Meissonnier admits that there are some similarities between Adé and Marley from a business point of view, but other comparisons raise his ire. “I don’t really know how you can compare the two. They are not the same thing,” he said. “In terms of popularity, it is probably true that Sunny is the second third-world star after Marley. But he is not like the new Bob Marley. A lot of people have come to his concerts to see Bob Marley, and it’s crazy.”

Nor is Adé the fiery leader that Marley was. Arguing that “one man’s friend is another man’s enemy,” he tries to steer clear of political issues at home and abroad. Instead of urging his listeners to “Get Up, Stand Up,” Adé – who, like many juju musicians, is a Catholic–writes of the love of God and of the respect for one’s family.

“I have my own vision, “he said, “pushing love and peace. It is not only the love between a husband and wife, but within the brother to brother.” Whether large numbers of Americans will support Adé’s vision is yet to be seen. Radio airplay for Juju Music has been almost nonexistent, and his record sales are far from impressive. But Adé will keep trying. Current plans call for a second U.S. album in the spring and another tour in August. 

In This Article: Africa, Coverwall

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