burning ambulance

King Sunny Ade

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I first heard King Sunny Adé‘s music in movies—in Jim McBride‘s remake of Breathless, starring Richard Gere, and then in Robert Altman‘s O.C. and Stiggs, in which Adé was not just heard but seen. The title characters find him and his band, the African Beats, on tour in Mexico, and bring them over the border to play a party hosted by their hated neighbors. The footage of them performing “Penkele,” from their 1983 album Synchro System, captivated me. The lilting Yoruba vocals; the shimmering waves of guitar, bolstered by synthesizers and zinging steel guitar; the conga polyrhythms and the amazing-sounding talking drum; it was like no music I’d ever heard before, and while I never spotted any of his albums in record stores, I filed his name in my head for future reference. I probably saw those movies in 1987 or so, on home video or on cable; it wasn’t until 1989 that I finally got my hands on a Sunny Adé CD—1982’s Juju Music.

Adé was signed to Island Records in the early 1980s, and teamed up with French producer Martin Meissonier. Those first two albums contained updated and modernized versions of songs he’d first recorded on Nigerian albums throughout the 1970s. The originals were frequently portions of side-long medleys, the way they’d be performed at one of Adé’s marathon shows, but for Island they were separated and made slightly poppier, mostly by adding synthesizers and production effects lifted from dub. His third and final Island album, 1984’s Aura, combined star power (Stevie Wonder guested on the opening track, “Ase”) with a full-on embrace of up-to-date technology, including heavy use of the Linn drum machine, at times bringing the music close to the proto-hip-hop of Herbie Hancock‘s “Rockit,” while still retaining its ineffable Nigerian-ness.

Adé toured the US a few times in the 1980s, but I didn’t get to see him live until 1990, when he performed at the now-defunct club Kilimanjaro in Manhattan. It was billed as a “Very Special Marathon Performance,” and indeed, the band played from eight PM until four AM for a $20 ticket. This was typical for Nigeria, where shows frequently went all night, but was unprecedented in New York. The band was huge—I have no idea how many people were actually onstage, but it seemed like dozens, all in multicolored robes, with Adé up front, literally gleaming under the lights as he sang and played rhythm guitar and African men and women from the audience came up onto the stage and pressed bills onto his forehead, a tradition known as “spraying” the band.

Just over 25 years later, I got to speak with Adé, who’s performing in New York on July 3 for the first time since 2009. The show is a co-presentation of Central Park Summerstage and the World Music Institute. He was supposed to be here last year, but had visa problems. “The American embassy, they had technical problems throughout the whole world processing visas. Not just for me,” he says by phone from Nigeria. “So we were lucky this time that we were given.”

Adé will be co-headlining the free Central Park performance with a fellow Nigerian, Orlando Julius. “We’ve known each other over 40 years, maybe more,” he says of the man who claims to have invented Afrobeat. “We played in clubs, festivals, concerts, so many parties in Nigeria, and we played together several times in America.”

Adé says he performs all the time in Nigeria, but only a small percentage of those shows are concerts as they’re understood in North America or Europe. Many of them are parties, which may last 10 or 12 hours. “The more you are here dancing, the more you’re having fun. I’m still doing that, even at my age…as you’re talking to me, I’m preparing to go play a show somewhere tonight. ”

While many other Nigerian musicians, particularly during the turbulent 1970s and early 1980s, used music as a platform for political and social commentary—Fela Kuti the most famous of these—Adé has always stayed away from that. This is the key to his music’s appeal, according to him. “I would say I always have a huge crowd, huge numbers of fans, simply because my music allows you to come and enjoy yourself. We preach peace, so…some musicians preach politics, but I just decided to be neutral. So people are in love with me and my music for that. They come to me knowing that I will allow them to enjoy themselves, have peace of mind, and have a good time. I play happy music.”

Phil Freeman

Stream Synchro System, the best of Adé’s Island albums:

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