King Sunny Ade – The Best Of The Classic Years (recorded 1967 – 1974, released 2003)

I’d read much about this compilation of tracks King Sunny laid down for a Nigerian label between 1967 and 1973 when
a) he was in his prime (so they say)
b) before Island records started messing with his sound (so they say) in order to make an international star of him

It’s hard to get here in South Africa, though that specialist African music store I saw in Cape Town might help out there. It can’t be got from the local version of iTunes (presumably because of distribution deals for various territories) and so I had to import a hard copy from Amazon UK.

Certainly, and whilst an initiate would instantly recognise it as King Sunny, there are noticeable differences between this and the other King Sunny albums I’ve reviewed here: The tracks here are little rawer, have more of an edge to them, and there’s no keyboards and, more noticeably, no pedal steel guitar.

With no competition for the solo space and different production (or just plain less production) the guitars come to the fore early in the opening medley, reminding us that King Sunny has a reputation as a guitar hero in his own country. There’s no detailed liner notes, so we don’t know who plays what and it’s possible that King Sunny is sharing guitar duties here. After a brief verse we get two guitars (one each side of the stereo spectrum) playing off of and against each other and swapping between lead and rhythm roles.

The guitar sound is essentially a clean one, not a lot of overdrive, and the tone has real bite and attack to it. I find this to often be a more exciting, more interesting, more ELECTRIC sound (there, I said it) than a compressed, sustained and be-pedalled sound. The notes ring in a more pleasing way, and both guitarists (if it’s two of them and not a double-tracked King Sunny) know how to let notes ring. Either of them would deserve the nickname Johnny B Goode.

The opening medley (less satisfying on MP3 because of the annoying gaps that disrupt the flow) is over fifteen minutes long, and the guitars dominate. But they don’t get boring, It’s a remarkable piece of guitar jamming, though the underlying shifting sand of rhythm (this music has a great groove but is light on beat) help to keep things interesting.

After the fifteen plus minute medley we get eighteen (!) minutes of “Synchro System” a track that King Sunny cut, in abbreviated form, on one of the Island discs. The formula is familiar – hip swaying poly rhythms overlaid by rhythm guitars, often kept a little back in the mix and insinuating more than driving the point home. But this time it’s a slow burn with the listener kept in suspense waiting for the guitar fireworks. When they come the licks are marked by a sliding technique which suggests the pedal steel that was later to become such a feature of the King Sunny sound. At other times the track reduces to just vocals over the percussion. The band display a great dynamic touch and the groove is constantly beguiling.

The rest of the tracks are shorter, but this is relative: Nothing weighs in under the five-and-a-half minute mark. There is lots of interesting conjecture to be head here around the nature (and we can only speculate) of the Nigerian market and radio formats because although this was some of the most commercial and commercially successful music in West Africa at that time it is not three-ish minute pop singles – even the tracks from the 60s.

The guitar parts are not outlandish to Western ears, but they are also not rock. Sticking almost exclusively to that clean, ringing sound and using modes and licks that are not typical of rock music. You can get a taste of the King Sunny guitar MO on Paul Simon’s Rhythm of The Saints album which featured a lot of West and Central african musicians, but remember please that King Sunny (or one of his contemporaries) got there first – Simon was not the innovator.

The closing tracks are, I presume, those recorded in the late sixties: They have a more primitive, less clear sound to them, though the guitar solo on “Afai Bowon” cuts like a knife. And there are tuning problems and odd balances which speak of limited studio time and which remind us that this is archival material and perhaps best viewed through an academic lens. But the energy is undeniable, the band settles into one great groove after another and there is some terrific guitar work.

So it’s raw in places, though not crude and not unsophisticated, and the trade off is on the side of edge and excitement and a very immediate feel to the music, even on the longer tracks (which, as with the King Sunny albums I have , is where King Sunny and his band are often the most interesting).

How much of the difference is down to western production is hard to say. The latest tracks here predate Juju Music by nearly a decade. King Sunny would certainly have introduced the pedal steel guitar and increased the side of his band without any intervention from Island records and might have developed along more mellow lines anyway. Without tracking down more of his records and putting them into chronological sequence one can’t say, though it is widely alleged that there was a stand off between King Sunny and Island over production decisions.

Possibly it’s not the best place for those with an ear for hi-fi and smooth sophistication to start with King Sunny, but if his musical territory appeals to the discoverer within you then you should really consider this for the greater urgency and thrill.

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