Following a decade spent establishing himself as one of Africa’s most prolific and successful pop artists, Nigeria’s King Sunny Adé (Sunday Adeniyi) came to prominence in Europe and the US in 1982. Almost unanimously embraced by critics (if not consumers), he plays juju, a flowing, sonorous musical style which has its origins in the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Adé has made more than 50 albums; only a handful have been released in the US.
The music is almost as formulaic as it is intoxicating; Adé’s long songs (often filling an entire side on African releases) contain some of the most irresistible grooves anywhere. As many as a half-dozen guitarists and an equal number of percussionists playing simple figures collectively weave an intricate web that serves as background for call-and-response vocals. Within this framework, Adé — borrowing from many other cultures — adds his own touches. Juju Music, culled from several prior LPs, relies heavily on synthesizers, Hawaiian steel guitars and reggae dub techniques. It is the densest of the first three domestic releases: ghostlike guitars float through one another with near-vocal textures for perhaps as organic a sound as can be produced with electric instruments.
Synchro System is more melodically stripped-down. Percussion dominates, especially the bubbling sound of the talking drum, an African instrument of variable pitch. On Aura, Adé sets his pan-cultural sights even further, and the rhythm tracks are almost pure beatbox in style. The vocal harmonies in his work have a distinctive Latin feel.
After it became clear that Adé was not to inherit the late Bob Marley’s role as preeminent Third World musical/cultural ambassador, he returned to being just a Nigerian national treasure. The Return of the Juju King compiles tracks from three mid-’80s albums released on his own Atom Park label. Shaking off his failure to win Western hearts, Adé sounds like a happy man again; the joyous juju reaffirms his status as one of the most captivating and important musical talents anywhere in the world today.
As it turns out, Adé’s major contribution in the West has been to open doors for others. Not having appeared on records by platinum-selling yuppie faves (as Youssou N’Dour and Ladysmith Black Mambazo have), Adé has had to watch as “world beat” became a hip way for white people to assuage their guilt and/or impress their friends. Regardless, he has continued to produce quality work; one noteworthy release is Live Live Juju, recorded in Seattle in 1987.
As much as Adé’s music flows in the studio, it is really meant to be heard live. Songs are allowed to go on longer, and the interaction between his many band members (and the audience) is far more playful and intricate. In concert, the emphasis is shifted away from the synthesizers and steel guitars and towards the real roots of juju: drums, rhythm guitars and massed voices. Live Live Juju reprises material from previous US albums, but most of the songs are new (or at least previously unissued in the US). The recording quality is excellent, and the liner notes, concerning Adé as well as the social and cultural history of Nigerian pop music, are very informative.