King Of The World Beat
Nigeria's King Sunny Ade Spreads The Joy Of Juju.
By Ron Bally
APRIL 10, 2000: BESIDES AFRO-FUNK pioneer Fela Kuti, no Nigerian musician has embodied the role of international superstar like King Sunny Ade. A pop sensation, successful businessman and good will ambassador, Ade is as adored and respected as Kuti (who succumbed to an AIDS-related illness in 1997) among the people of West Africa. He is hailed by enthusiasts and music critics alike as a Nigerian national treasure and perhaps the greatest Afro-pop star of all time.
For over three decades as a bandleader, the jovial Ade has been delighting audiences in his homeland and across the globe with magnetic live performances and precedent-setting studio recordings. Besides producing innovative videos that complement his song craft and adroit musicianship, Ade is constantly elevating the field of Afro-pop music to more creative heights. He's the founder and president of Sigma Disc Records, as well as a much-admired humanitarian for social and political reforms. For years he has led the effort to secure musicians' rights as Chairman of the Musical Copyright Society of Nigeria, which struggles to deter Africa's rampant record piracy.
Last October, he was elected president of the Performing Musician's Association of Nigeria (PMAN), a national musician's union currently petitioning the new Nigerian Senate to ratify the first ever Musician's Bill of Rights. The bill recognizes the basic rights of musicians, their creative output and their right to earn a livable wage. Social agendas and (rumored) political aspirations aside, Ade is foremost a gifted guitarist and songwriter whose music is clearly his message.
Nigerians refer to Ade simply as KSA, and to those who know him well he's "The Chairman." He's a musical conglomerate, a one-man BMG or EMI. Dubbed a "sort of capitalist-cum-philanthropist" in a recent press release, Ade has piloted the revenue earned as a music titan into holdings in a vast assortment of companies, including an oil refining business, a mining venture, nightclubs, a film and video production enterprise, record labels (encompassing African artists performing reggae, juju, highlife, folk and jazz), pressing plants, and even his own public relations firm. He employs more than 700 people, and at least 200 of those work for his various musical enterprises.
Nigeria has always maintained a thriving and resilient entertainment industry, surviving 16 years of military rule that plundered the country's wealth, destroyed its infrastructure and ignored the human rights of its 110 million people. But under the administration of its first democratically elected president since 1983, the capitol of Lagos is finally grooving to the new rhythms of autonomy.
Born Sunday Anthony Ishola Adneyi Adegeye in September 1946 to an offshoot of the Royal family of Ondo town, Ade began his life in music by performing in a variety of highlife bands (distinguished by its universal appeal and dazzling, two-finger guitar lines) in the early '60s. By 1966, he had formed his first musical troupe, the Green Spots, which echoed the name of his mentor's band, I.K. Dairo and the Blue Spots, and released several modest selling albums. Ade's popularity had swelled by 1976 when fans voted him the most popular juju music performer. His appeal never faltered, and by the late '70s each new album (roughly three per year) sold in excess of a quarter of a million copies each. In 1982 Ade brought new fans into the fold with the worldwide release of the critically acclaimed Juju Music.
In the early '80s, as Island Records groomed Ade as the successor to Bob Marley, major U.S. record companies began releasing Nigerian recordings of Ade, Kuti and Ebenezer Obey, touting African music as the next big thing to follow reggae. In 1977, in the company of fans, industrial leaders, ministers, governors and even Nigeria's head of state, Ade was crowned the King of Juju music. In 1982, Island inaugurated his international career with the premiere of Juju Music and funded a barnstorming mini-tour of the States. It was a monumental juncture in the exposure and development of world beat music; perhaps the first time a major American imprint had fully endorsed an African-derived music that was not reggae.
Several years followed before the world deliriously embraced Paul Simon and his South African-rich Graceland album (which featured the heavenly vocals of the Ladysmith Black Mambazo ensemble), almost guaranteeing long-range commercial success for African-rooted pop music. Inexplicably, Afro-pop never really caught on in America beyond Simon's staunch support, but Ade's perseverance proves it's still a presence. It's just been searching for an opportunity to regain the world spotlight (lofty crossover aspirations are expected, however, from a recent stateside release by Femi Kuti, Fela's son).
On Seven Degrees North (which takes its title from Lagos' position relative to the equator), slated for a June 6 release on Mesa/Atlantic, Ade continues to explore his conventional juju music roots, snubbing the critics who say the zenith of African music popularity has waned. Juju dynamically melds Western pop and traditional African music by uniting electric guitars and keyboards with such indigenous instruments as talking drums. It's a complex euphony of voluminous textures, subtleties and social meaning.
Ade has released over 100 albums in his native country, and on this latest effort he patterns his material after suites, each piece having a movement, with percussion parts succumbing to repetitious guitar lines, which give way to heavily emotional choral sections. Tempos vary, new rhythms unexpectedly take command mid-tune, and during these transitions fresh sounds waft through. It's hypnotic, seductive and thoroughly enjoyable dance music unlike anything you've ever heard.
Lyrically, juju is steeped in the rich Yoruba tradition of communicating profound social and cultural messages through prototypical proverbs and parables. A strikingly festive music, juju has at its foundation a jovial and interactive aspect that involves a multitude of grooves, call-and-response choruses (sung in their native Yoruban tongue) and polyrhythmic pauses.
Juju music is drawn from Lagos' melting pot, where indigenous Yoruba people integrated with the descendants of freed slaves from Sierra Leone and Brazil, creating new musical styles and aesthetics. Dueling lead guitars, melodic counter-harmonies and intoxicating undulations of complex percussive beats coalesce with audio twists and turns at every corner -- such as calypso, reggae and dub, or the weeping pedal steel guitars found in American country-and-western -- that bridge the gaps of other cultures and musical idioms.
Occasionally bogged down in the economic reality of gaining social acceptance through public adoration, juju music is a complicated allegory. Recorded music enables the artist to elaborate on diverse social topics and perceived injustices. In stark contrast, live performances (sometimes lasting 8-12 hours) often revolve primarily around animated social gatherings where lyrics and music engage a more pivotal social meaning, publicly applauding the audience over multi-layered, lengthy jamming song structures. Much of this live celebration, the prime source of most of the group's monetary rewards; is based on public enthusiasm for the commemoration of significant rites of passage such as naming ceremonies, marriages, birthdays and funerals. It's an all-encompassing, multi-purpose family affair.
Most Americans won't understand a word Ade sings, and they don't need to. The music transcends language; it's about dancing, singing and feeling good.
On his most recent American tour, Ade's small musical army includes six percussionists, a keyboardist, two female dancers, four singers and five guitarists and bassists. The beat is certifiably African, but the melodies, harmonies and improvisations are conversant, a wholly unique amalgamation of African, West Indian, R&B, Latin, blues, rock and even country-and-western (remember the pedal steel guitar).
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