By Brad Lopez
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By Noah Hubbell
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King Sunny Ade was worldbeat before worldbeat was cool.
A legend in his native Nigeria, where he began working as a professional musician more than a quarter century ago, Ade made his American debut in 1983 and quickly became a cause celebre among aficionados of African styles. His first tour of the states found him performing before sell-out crowds of hipsters who recognized the so-called juju music played by his band, the African Beats, as a to-die-for delicacy a full year before Paul Simon's Graceland brought similar sounds into the mainstream. A great many artists subsequently jumped on the worldbeat gravy train, and longtime practitioners such as Johnny Clegg (whose hypnotic soundtrack for the 1988 film Rain Man intrigued audiences in every shopping-mall cinema across the country) finally received long-overdue attention. When trends changed, however, some artists abandoned worldbeat in favor of the next marketable genre. But not Ade: While his music has evolved over the years, it continues to draw from the traditions he's embraced since he first came to the public's attention. His music is as vibrant today as it ever was.
The reason, Ade says, is simple. "I love my music so much," he confesses in charming, sometimes halting English. "More than anything else, definitely. It is what has really kept me going--right from my youth, I believe. When you make music, you can think about making records, making films, having a nightclub. Everything that surrounds you has something to do with the music. In short, I love entertainment."
The love of Ade's life has provided him a good living--a necessity, given that he has twelve children to support. At present, he has more than seventy recordings to his credit, owns a nightclub that's been one of the hottest spots in Lagos, Nigeria's capital, for over a decade, and writes, directs and acts in his own film productions.
His success did not come without a price. When he became obsessed with music, Ade (christened Sunday Adeniyi) faced great opposition from his family, a royal Yoruba clan based in the western Nigerian state of Ondo. His parents, who had groomed him for a prestigious legal career befitting his background, were shocked when he later dropped out of school and joined Moses Olaiyi's Yoruba Rhythm Dandies at age seventeen. Ade says that he understands their reaction.
"In the olden days, way back in Africa, we believed that whoever played music were the dropout children," he explains. "Because music is everywhere. Music is in the streets. There is music in your backyard. Music is inside and out. And people who played the music did nothing else. It had been that way, but no more. Nowadays, it is business." Ade soon recognized his music's potential. In the mid-Sixties he joined a group led by Tunde Nightingale, one of the pioneers of modern juju sounds. Shortly thereafter, Ade formed his first juju band, the Green Spots, and by 1967 had created his own recording company, Sunny Alade. He also began calling his band the African Beats and laying the groundwork for international fame.
These developments convinced Ade's kin that he was never going to become a lawyer. "We straightened it out," Ade says about his relationship with his family. "You know, if you are the rebel among the children, [your parents] are in love with you. They will take you back. That's how it is. They have seen that I have been playing my music around the whole world and that people love my music. And I believe that they love me, too, as a person, because I didn't go astray. I didn't drink. I don't smoke. And so they still love me."
Who wouldn't? A devout Christian, Ade exudes an uncommon sweetness and in conversation comes across more like a brilliant philosopher than a musical innovator and savvy entrepreneur. Still, his business sense is never far from the future. "You must make sure you do very good music to attract people," he advises. "It should be professional. That's the way I look at everything." Nevertheless, Ade has never been afraid to tinker with his music or juxtapose instruments that might strike others as ridiculously incompatible. For example, he was the first juju practitioner to incorporate pedal-steel guitar, synthesizers and synth drums into his band. And while the African Beats initially sported as many as five electric guitarists who played interlocking rhythm parts, Ade's eighteen-member group currently consists of only two lead guitarists, a pedal-steel player, five lead vocalists, a bassist, a drummer, a keyboardist and percussionists armed with timbales, congas, shekere rattles and talking drums. Moreover, the music they play draws from diverse sources: Aladura church music, Yoruba guitar instrumentals and Ashiko and Nigerian variations on blues, as well as jazz, Cuban pop, Hawaiian folk and American country music.
The Beats' music is fast--just this side of frantic--and can be heard to excellent effect on Ade's most recent IRS release, Live at the Hollywood Palace. Although he believes that the concert setting added extra fire to the performances, Ade says he's been able to achieve the same degree of passion in more sterile conditions. "There are two ways to do it," he notes. "When you get into the studio, no audience is there--you must be your own audience. You can fill it in."