King Sunny Ade: The King of Juju Music

Thomas Odumade last lectured on the virtues of Lidget Green Position. This time he tackles the King–allapologies to Elvis, Michael Jackson, T.I., and Louis XIV. Both the band and the...
By    August 2, 2010

Thomas Odumade last lectured on the virtues of Lidget Green Position. This time he tackles the King–allapologies to Elvis, Michael Jackson, T.I., and Louis XIV. Both the band and the enlightened monarch.

Despite a surge in interest in West African music over the last few years, little has been written about legendary Juju pioneer King Sunny Ade. The lack of coverage for one of Afropop’s superstars may simply reflect the difficulty of getting a handle on the byzantine sprawl of his discography. Though he released a couple of immensely popular major label albums in the early ’80s, the vast majority of his records have never seen release outside of Nigeria.

Ade has been recording since 1967 when he formed his first band, the Green Spots, and hasn’t stopped since. Frustratingly vague accounts estimate over 100 albums to his name, and I suspect those to be conservative accountings. This makes a comprehensive survey of his music almost impossible-an ambiguity congruent with his music itself.  Borrowing heavily from American influences, but more rooted in Yoruba folk music tradition than other West African creations like highlife or Afrobeat, King Sunny Ade’s juju music occupies an indefinite and fluid musical space. One could argue, paradoxically, that it is both more Nigerian and yet more international than any other style from the nation.

First rising to fame three decades ago, on Island sub-label, Mango Records, King Sunny Ade & His African Beats were among the first African bands on a major label and the first to be marketed to Western audiences under the “world music” tag. Never one play it safe, the band used the opportunity to produce three of their most experimental albums. Juju Music (1982) introduced the West to the master guitarist’s aesthetic, adding Jamaican dub production and synthesizers to the band’s music, which was already a complicated hybrid of traditional West African, Afro-Cuban and American influences. The album has a kind of hazy, orchestral beauty–its disarmingly intimate mood seemingly at odds with what one would expect from a band consisting of a half-legion of musicians. (King Sunny Ade likes his bands around the 20 man mark, and rotates them from a pool of around 50 or so musicians.)



Synchro System (1983) simultaneously refined and expanded on the experiments of Juju Music, sanding off some of that album’s widescreen extravagance, and adding darkly-lit synthesizer grooves into the mix. Combining the band’s exuberant, sunbathed harmonies and gentle guitars with a starker, more bass-heavy sound, Synchro System stands out as a great, if atypical, entry in the King Sunny Ade discography, and it was, in retrospect, the pinnacle of his North American career. Major label album #3, Aura (1984), didn’t garner the sales figures of the previous two albums, and after King Sunny Ade’s refusal to allow the label to “remix” his music into something more commercial, he was dropped by Island Records. Since then King Sunny Ade has released a crazy number of albums within Nigeria and continues to tour, albeit with a lot less international visibility.

King Sunny Ade’s major-label experiments during the ’80s kepy with the reputation he earned early on in his career as an innovator in juju music. From the beginning, King Sunny Ade never seemed interested in repeating himself or his forebears. Taking inspiration from artists like I.K. Dairo and Tunde Nightingale, who were juju innovators themselves, his band set about pioneering their own style. One rather entertaining version of history contextualizes many of the changes that juju music underwent during Sunny Ade’s early years as a competition between him and his main rival, juju’s “Chief Commander” Ebenezer Obey, each racing to incorporate new elements into their music, more talking drums, more guitars, more singers, basically more of everything. King Sunny Ade’s most popular innovation was using a pedal steel guitar, which he has attributed to his love for the American country music of Jim Reeves.

A fair bit has been written about the functional elements of King Sunny Ade’s music– it’s didacticism and moralizing characteristics, the incorporation of praise singing and Yoruba proverbs, and its performance at traditional parties and celebrations. As well, many critics have remarked at how gentle and introverted his sound is, apparently perceiving it as a foil to the overtly aggressive and political music of Nigeria’s other big name musical export, Fela Kuti. While the comparison is partly apt, one shouldn’t overlook the ways that King Sunny Ade often subverts the tenderness of his music with lyrics that suggest a bittersweet world-weariness amidst all the celebration. One gets the sense that there is dark humour combined with much of his optimism.

Take the longer song cycle below, which plays out like an extended conversation and covers among other things, broad themes of uncertainty, impermanence and the duality of good vs evil, then shifts to something as specific as a kid going to the market to buy a snake’s head (which can be used for food, traditional medicine, or poison), leaving room for King Sunny Ade to self-mythologize and ruminate on the ambiguous relationship between traditional Yoruba religions and Christianity. One minute King Sunny Ade is singing about how everyone loves him, and in the next he’s mocking adversaries who are plotting to destroy him with witchcraft.

This is music that’s happy to contradict itself and leave itself open to multiple interpretations. It revels in them. The aforementioned song concludes with some lines which translate roughly as “Nothing you can do” and “Everything breaks” , and I’m not sure whether he’s telling listeners to roll with the punches, or warning his enemies that he’s untouchable. Probably both.–Odumade

MP3:  King Sunny Ade & His African Beats – “Maajo” from Synchro System (Left-Click)
MP3: King Sunny Ade – “Ekilo Fomo Ode/Eni Binu Wa/Won Ran Mo Loja/Kosoun Tadie/Bole Ya Koya” from Classics Vol. 2 (Left-Click)

MP3: Sunny Ade & His Green Spots Band – “A Kunle a Tewo Adura”  from The Master Guitarist Vol. 1

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