Nigeria’s King Sunny Adé: ‘I see myself as a freelance’
Heir to a Yoruba tradition of praise-singing with infectious drumming, King Sunny Adé brought Juju music to an international audience and experimented with the far reaches of synthesised sound before returning to his roots. And he has no intention of stopping.
Two photographs of King Sunny Adé hang on the reception wall of M&C 106.5 FM radio station in Ondo town. One is a recent portrait identifying him as Dr. Sunday Adeniyi Adegeye, M.F.R. (Member of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, an official honour), the chairman of the station. The second, a more dated and life-sized image of the maestro strumming a guitar, carries no identification: what would be the need?
It is past noon when King Sunny Adé saunters into the radio station. He sports a boyish grin emphasising his long-drawn vertical Ondo facial marks. Dressed in maroon aso-oke with a matching shawl and cap, he glides like a warrior, not like a 71-year-old monarch of music. He walks straight into the star-struck faces of the coterie of guests who have been awaiting his arrival. Shaking the hands of everyone in the room, he radiates a warmth that makes the endless wait gratifying.
King Sunny Adé is a legend of Juju music – a variant of palm-wine music that blends praise-singing with Yoruba drumming. Its primordial roots are traced back to West African griot traditions and forebears like Irewole Denge, Tunde King, Tunde Nightingale, Ojoge Daniel and I.K. Dairo, who popularised this sound in south-west Nigeria from the 1920s.
Born in Osogbo, a two-hour drive from his native Ondo town, Adé quit formal education when his musical urge became irresistible. His apprenticeship began as an equipment-carrying band boy, moved through his short romance with drums, and ended when he began to play the guitar for semi-pro highlife bands in Lagos in the ’60s. His parents were oblivious of his foray into music – he had conveniently misinformed them that he was a student.
Fame and acclaim came to Adé in the ’70s, often remembered in Nigerian history as a watershed period in music, arts and culture in general. Nigeria’s head of state at the time, Yakubu Gowon, is famously quoted to have said: “Money is not our problem, but how to spend it.” The Yoruba, known for their vivacity, patronised Juju musicians like Dele Abiodun, Thony Adex, Kayode Fashola and Emperor Pick Peters, but Sunny Adé and Ebenezer Obey were reserved for the richest Yoruba elites.
King Sunny Adé, crowned by the monarch of Oyo town in the late ’70s, shaped the genre with his lyrical indulgence in deep Yoruba traditions while energising the music with foreign equipment like the Hawaiian guitar, which he borrowed from American country music.
A self-taught guitarist, Adé was ranked by Spin magazine as one of the 100 Greatest Guitarists in 2012. His 1974 album E Kilo F’omo Ode and his 1977 Sunny Adé and his African Beats in London LP will reassure listeners of his virtuosity. E Kilo F’omo Ode, an early classic, dwells on Adé’s existential angst about his artistic future, while the latter is a self-assured album steeped in expansive guitar rhythms that ushers in his illustrious mid-career exploits.
After the death of Jamaican reggae legend Bob Marley, Island Records turned to Africa to find a new voice they could raise to global superstardom. Martin Meissonnier, a French journalist, music producer and scout for Island, heard the wail of Demola Adepoju’s Hawaiian guitar on a Sunny Adé song in a traffic jam in Lagos and he was hooked. A few years later, Adé released his first international album, with the definitive title Juju Music, on the label.
Adé released two other international albums within three years: Synchro System (1983), nominated for a Grammy in the Best World Music Album category, and Aura (1984), an experimental record replete with synthesisers and a Linn drum machine. But, despite featuring Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen and American musician Stevie Wonder, Aura failed to chart. Soon afterwards, Island Records pulled the plug.
Sitting in an off-air studio booth in his radio station 30 years after parting ways with Island Records, a pensive Adé reminisces: “I believe I still had my fans all over the world. It is only that we left Island (Records). But you know we went to Mango (Records) as well. In this case, I see myself as a freelance. I can record with any company in the whole world as long as I don’t have a contract with another person.”
Adé’s departure from Island Records seemed like the end of a failed experiment at globalising Juju music. But even if Juju music did not have the pop tendencies of reggae, Adé’s attempt paved the way for the music of Youssou N’Dour, Ali Farka Touré, Salif Keita and Papa Wemba to reach a global audience.
While Adé was busy touring the world with his 22-man African Beats band and incurring the large managerial costs of popularising a new sound in a different clime, his Juju musician counterparts were also touring abroad, playing small venues hosted by Yoruba associations in the diaspora.
Not a wedding band
Of course, Adé’s courtship of the international scene had consequences on his local fan base. Even though he continued to release albums in Nigeria at a prolific rate, his most revered competitor, Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey, older by five years, made albums that catered to the whole gamut of Yoruba social functions – weddings, children’s christenings and birthday celebrations – thus expanding his fan base and local popularity.
While the ’80s brought him fame, it was not entirely without struggles. Adé had to reform his band following a mutiny of some members at a recording session in 1986. At this time, his band endured a brief name change from African Beats to Golden Mercury. But Adé seemed to turn his creative turmoil into memorable hits.
If Adé’s locally released albums were a minefield of artistic experimentation, his international albums, often a compilation of his best tunes over a period of time, were more deliberate and assured.
“I always want to make something new. At home, they prefer medleys rather than three- or five-minute tracks for international albums,” he says, reflecting on the process of making his international albums. “Sometimes I look at the trend of how popular some songs in my previous albums were. And again, through my fans and fan clubs worldwide, I ask them what songs they would prefer me to pick.”
Adé sees himself as a custodian of Yoruba history. “I am African. Anything African, people want to know more about it. Incantations have [existed since] before my forefathers. How did they relay it? Incantation is history.”
Adé paid particular attention to the titles of his international albums. His 1987 PolyGram Records release, The Return of the Juju King, announced the resurgence of his Juju music evangelism. Odu (1998), was ambitiously named for the Ifa literary corpus, a system of divination popular in Yorubaland, south-west Nigeria as well as in Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian religions.
Further blending the essence of Yoruba history with guitar licks, steel pedal guitar wails and fast-paced percussion brought Adé much-deserved critical recognition and another Grammy nomination in the World Music Category for Odu. When asked about how this achievement made him feel, Adé reclines in his seat and smiles.
Old sounds made new
In 2000, he released Seven Degrees North, named after the approximate distance of Lagos from the Equator. One of the longer numbers on this LP, ‘Solution’, begins with calypso influences before devolving into a remake of one of his ’80s tunes, ‘Isu J’oba L’oriyan’, the song he recorded, produced and arranged in the aftermath of the mutiny of some of his band members.
Adé’s contribution to Nigeria has been recognised with the national honour of Member of the Order of the Federal Republic (MFR), awarded by Goodluck Jonathan, as well as an honorary doctorate from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, where he is also a visiting lecturer.
50 years on stage
In 2016, Adé was honoured at the finale of a year-long roster of events to mark his 70th birthday and 50 years on stage. The event, at the Federal Palace Hotel, Lagos, reached its climax when his vintage Fender Rhodes guitar, adorned with beautiful drawings by Victor Ehikhamenor, was auctioned for the whopping price of N52.1m ($145,000).
Today, Juju music is effectively a quaint genre, but Adé remains an influential icon to younger artists – his massive 1986 hit ‘Sweet Banana’ incarnated a phallic metaphor still very much in use in Nigerian popular culture. Musicians like Wizkid, Adekunle Gold, Niniola and Iyanya fondly acknowledge him as the popstar whose stage presence could rival, if not outshine, Michael Jackson’s.
At 72, the King of juju music has not retired; you will not be surprised to hear that his live performances are his most consistent exercise routines, playing shows with the stamina of a man half his age.
This article was first published in The Africa Report April 2018 print edition