From pioneer to ambassador: King Sunny Ade

Boston Globe, July 12, 2009

It’s a signal achievement in world music to go global – to achieve recognition and a fan following that fills arenas and festival fields in countries far and wide. But sometimes you don’t have to. Sometimes, the respect you garner at home affords you all the gigs you need, plus creative inspiration and business opportunities.

For 30 years, that’s been the status of King Sunny Ade, the composer, bandleader, singer, guitarist, and entrepreneur whose importance in Lagos, Nigeria – the gigantic commercial hub of Africa’s biggest country – has earned him a string of affectionate honorifics like “Chairman of the Board” and “Minister of Enjoyment.”

And so Ade, pioneer and master of the mellow, shimmering, large-band party genre called juju music, hasn’t had to worry about Western tastes and fusion appeal. He hasn’t had to transform his band’s life into a marathon of airports and visa applications. His overseas gigs are few and far between; so his current American tour, which hits the Museum of Fine Arts on Wednesday, is momentous indeed.

Recently, a Nigerian newspaper held a text-message survey to determine the country’s “living legends.” It listed Ade in the top 20 – the only musician on the list. And Ade takes the honor humbly, but seriously.

“I will just call myself a person,” he says on the phone from a tour stop in Vancouver. “But inasmuch as I have been called a legend by the people, it becomes my responsibility. I am more or less an ambassador. I have the responsibility to keep up the image and the tradition.”

Juju music isn’t traditional in a narrow sense. It emerged in the 1970s from a combination of Yoruba drumming with elements of West African highlife music, calypso, and jazz. Ade is known for instrumental innovation, building in not just electric guitar and synthesizers but more unusual imports like pedal steel, which gives his band a distinctive and alluring signature sound.

But Ade innovates in a traditional spirit, insisting that his sound build on the rich background of Yoruba music and philosophy, not break from it.

“I take my time,” he says. “I don’t introduce instruments just like that. You have to look at the music as it was played by the ancestors. When the electric guitar came, I had to let it sound like the kora. The pedal steel responds to the African violin. You look at what the ancestors have done, and you change the instrument, but not the tones.”

A careful composer and arranger, Ade also gives great attention to issues like miking, so that a Western drum kit, for instance, ideally complements hand percussions – an important concern for this polyrhythmic music, where the drums carry the melody for songs that can last 20 minutes or more.

The result is a highly crafted music for a large band – sometimes 20 musicians or more – that produces the kind of sophisticated yet relaxed groove that is perfect for parties that run deep into the night.

“It’s not a music of struggle at all. It’s music for pure enjoyment,” says Teju Cole, a Nigerian author and columnist who remembers Ade’s sounds saturating his childhood in Lagos. “This was the music of an oil-rich, burgeoning country that had Lagos [at the time] as its capital,” with wealth and abundant nightlife.

It stood in contrast with the protest music of the late Fela Kuti, Nigeria’s best-known artist overseas. Unlike the fiery and eccentric Fela, Ade has made his living the traditional way, playing primarily private events and parties.

“Sunny Ade is the highest grade of aristocratic currency that you could have, as a Yoruba person, at your party,” Cole says. “He has never fallen out of favor.”

But despite his elite ties – and, as an entrepreneur with interests both in and out of the entertainment business – Ade is no political sycophant. He’s more a guardian whose songs, in Yoruba, present that culture’s outlook with life lessons and abundant proverbs.

“He has such a profound relation to the language that he becomes – and I hate to be the African guy saying this – a vessel of that wisdom,” Cole says. “Sunny Ade songs are almost texts of the Yoruba world view.”

That part may be less accessible to non-Yoruba audiences, but everyone can appreciate other facets of Ade’s cultural activism. He has led the fight for Nigerian musicians to receive fair compensation in a marketplace crippled by piracy. He has also lobbied the government to lower import taxes on musical instruments, so young musicians don’t have to rely on electronics.

Ade is also now a scholar in residence at Nigeria’s Obafemi Awolowo University – a new type of challenge for him. “I believe I have to be lecturing people,” he says of the appointment. “So I will have to lecture myself too, by way of sharing with the students. I may have to study more music, become a musicologist!”

At 62, Ade is going strong. But of the other two seminal figures in juju music, one, I. K. Dairo, has died, and the other, Ebenezer Obey, is now a Christian evangelist. Seductive as it is for its glimmering grooves and upbeat outlook on life, juju is probably on the wane as Nigerian hip-hop and R&B have commandeered the airwaves.

That makes Sunny Ade all the more essential today, Cole says.

“His audience is probably not getting replenished, as the youngsters are going for more strongly hip-hop-influenced music,” Cole says. “But if you’re the big chief and your daughter is getting married, Sunny Ade is still the one you want for the party.”