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World Beater

king sunny
Daniel Ray

Living the High Life: King Sunny Ade, master of juju music.

King Sunny made African rhythms popular in the States

By Nicky Baxter

FOR A SHORT WHILE in the early and middle '80s, it appeared as if the world had turned black overnight, musically speaking. In the U.S., George Clinton had finally rid himself of the maze of contractual shackles binding him to Neil Bogart's Casablanca label. Vowing to resuscitate the Funk, Clinton got with Capitol and released a pair of well-received funkadelic albums in 1982 and 1983.

At the same time, hip-hop culture--breakdancing, tagging and rap--had already begun seeping outside its domain in the Bronx and had piqued the curiosity of New York City's downtown cognoscenti.

On the reggae front, Bob Marley's tragic passing in 1981 had not had a deleterious effect on Jamaican/African Diasporan music's forward motion. In Marley's wake emerged a new breed of "roots radicals," foremost among them Black Uhuru, as well as former Marley mates Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. In Great Britain, meantime, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Steel Pulse and Aswad, all from the estates ("projects"), were raging in the streets of Birmingham and Brixton when not onstage.

The era also witnessed the arrival in force of music from Nigeria, Africa's New York in terms of cultural (and political) influence. It is, of course, entirely possible that mainstream audiences' seemingly new openness to disparate forms of African-derived music from the U.S. and the Caribbean and the consequent transatlantic successes of Nigeria's King Sunny Ade and fellow Yoruban Fela Anikulapo Kuti (Afrobeat's begetter) were merely coincidental. More likely it was the theory of synchronicity at work.

IN ANY EVENT, by the time Juju Music (Island) hit North American record-store racks in 1982, Sunny Ade had for all intents and purposes usurped Ebenezer Obey's crown and glory as Nigeria's leading musical power. What Ade did that his competitor could, or would, not do was devise something like a stacked attack: in addition to the raft of twinkling guitars and billowing polyrhythms articulated by the "talking drums," King Sunny introduced electronic keyboards that alternately underscored the music's neo­New Age ambiance and supplemented it with Greg Rolie­like protofusion figures.

Perhaps most appealing to Western ears is Sunny's sparkling-star lap steel-pedal guitar playing. At times, it whistles, hums and sings like a Kentucky hillbilly after a little corn whisky. Ade, however, never loses sight of his own heritage, prodding the steel-pedal guitar to sound as if it were made in the United States of Africa.

Following hot on the heels of Juju Music's commercial and critical acclaim, Synchro System confirmed Ade's status as Africa's most popular musical export. But then, without warning, the bottom fell out. Things were fine at home, where juju's sovereign has recorded more than 100 albums and regularly prompts bidding wars among venue owners to have him under the floodlights, but even as Ade was fashioning increasingly mainstream statements for his new world-beat fans, his commercial viability with that audience was waning. Aura, released in 1985, bombed, and suddenly the musician was experiencing difficulty filling amphitheaters that just three years ago he and his African Beats had no problem packing.

A decade later, King Sunny Ade released E Dide (Get Up) on the Mesa/Bluemoon label. Explains Ade, "This album has songs popular in Nigeria, material we [Ade and his town-sized ensemble, the African Beats] recorded in the last year or so." The 13-track disc offers few surprises, not an intrinsic evil in the eyes of the 49-year-old multi-instrumentalist.

Indeed, there is something reassuring in hearing the ruminative strains of a tune like "Omode O'Mela." "Alashe L'Aiye," culled from the overlooked 1990 release Authority, is a praise song, one of several dedicated to God, an integral aspect of life for Yorubans and other Africans throughout the world.

As for any new directions musically, Ade's not the one. He's made it manifest that tradition is not necessarily a bad or backward thing: "Some people like change just for the sake of it, but my music doesn't really change; it only becomes more refined."


King Sunny Ade plays Saturday (Aug. 3) at Palookaville, 1133 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $16.50/$18. (408/458-2892)

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From the August 1-7, 1996 issue of Metro

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