King Sunny Adé was already a major star in Nigeria when Island Records came knocking in the early 80s. With Bob Marley dead Island were looking for another third world musician they could turn into an international star.
Reputedly born into a noble Nigerian family, King Sunny had been recording under his own name since the mid 60s and had a substantial body of work. He ran his own label, owned his own studios and was famous for the quality of his live performances with the bands that he assembled. He was respectful to the traditions of Yoruba music but also was a moderniser of the local Juju music, a guitar based hybrid of local folk music and western pop. In particular he introduced the pedal steel guitar into the music. He was also prolific, releasing multiple albums each year.
As I understand it the tracks on Juju Music are mostly not new, but were re-recorded and so the album is a sort of King Sunny Sampler with some attempts to sweeten the sound for Western ears.
I remarked in earlier reviews about the use of polyrhythms in the so-called “Desert Blues” music that has emerged from Mali and Libya, but King Sunny takes things a whole lot further with complex rhythm arrangements that make his music undulate more than have a beat – this is not music for banging heads to, it’s more about shimmying and shimmering.
The individual tracks are often long and the compositions may take unexpected twists and turns, or multiple songs may run into each other. And the longer tracks are when King Sunny and his band (known in the 80s as the African Beats) are at their best with the rhythm section building up a groove and King Sunny and the pedal steel soloing over the top.
The first track is the seven minutes plus “Ja Funmi” and it sets the scene for what is to come with languid rhythms and multiple intertwined guitar and percussion parts (the liner notes list four guitar players – including King Sunny but excluding the steel guitar – and eight percussionists). At about the five minute mark the pedal steel player, Demola Adepoju, takes a first slippery solo.
Despite his own reputation as a guitarist King Sunny gives the steel guitar most of the solo spotlight on this disc, but he gets in some licks of his own on the second track which also runs past the seven minute mark and insinuates itself with beguiling rhythms and vocal harmonies.
The album climaxes with a medley of the naïve love song “365 Is My Number” and the instrumental “The Message”. We get nearly two minutes of the first and just over six of the latter. Adepoju starts turning up the wick with a substantial pedal steel solo over the undulating talking drums, before King Sunny steps into the spotlight with a solo that mixes fluid runs with stabbing chords. Togther they build up the tension before steering the track to a sweeter conclusion.
The guitar sound is clean and bright throughout. Probably this to help the guitars cut through the complex, dense percussion arrangements. Mostly the solos use different modes than those that dominate in western pop music. Often there’s a conversational feel to the guitar parts, especially when King Sunny is trading solos with the steel guitarist.
But the main attractions are all sensual: The way the steel guitar – a key component of the sound and one of King Sunny’s innovations – insinuates itself into your head. The seductive, exotic rhythms. The sense of joy in the music and the performance – not for nothing is King Sunny referred to as “the minister of enjoyment”.
Island and King Sunny parted ways after three years, with King Sunny reportedly unhappy about musical concessions that Island wanted him to take but having gained a foothold in the live music circuits of Europe and the USA. And it was hardly the end of the road for King Sunny who continued his touring and prodigious recorded output.
King Sunny certainly had admirers and caught some influential ears. Paul Simon used some of the African Beats on Graceland, and there are tracks on his next album, Rhythm Of The Saints, that feature similar dense and deceptive percussion arrangements. David Byrne and Brian Eno also paid attention and worked aspects of Nigerian pop into their own projects as well as into Talking Heads sound. King Sunny was also hugely influential on subsequent generations of West African musicians and the prominence he gave the pedal steel guitar allowed Adepoju to become influential in his own right and effectively found a Nigerian school of pedal steel playing (which allowed King Sunny to fill the pedal steel chair in his band after Adepoju decided to pursue other opportunities).
The trio of albums he cut for Island in the 80s introduced him to wider audiences whilst not fulfilling Island’s ambitions of creating another third world star for rock audiences. But the modest breakthrough has been sustained with repeated tours to the USA and to Europe and with regular international releases skewed a little towards WASPish ears. At home his output remains considerable, but not all of these releases are easily available outside of west Africa, and licensing agreements (King Sunny is a shrewd businessman, and so you can bet that he pays careful attention to business arrangements) mean that not many of his albums are available on on line services and the choice for South African iTunes users is even smaller.
But these are annoyances, not excuses. The joyousness and the sophistication of King Sunny Adé is sufficiently available that we may have a good time and hear some familiar instruments being taken into exciting new (well… to some folks in some parts of the world) territories.
In particular if you are interested in world music and/or steel guitar and have not made acquaintance with the music of King Sunny Adé then you really should do so.