When reggae’s biggest star, Bob Marley, died in 1981, his label, Island Records, didn’t bother searching for another Jamaican artist to bring to rock audiences. Instead, label head Chris Blackwell turned his attention to Africa. He wanted to sign Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti, whose mix of James Brown-esque grooves and incisive political lyrics – performed at lengthy, sexually charged concerts – had made him a sensation in Europe. But Kuti was snapped up by Clive Davis’s Arista label.
Enter Martin Meissonnier, a French music journalist turned producer, who was serving as Kuti’s manager at the time. In a 2003 interview with a Japanese website, he recalls, “As I was working for Fela, I heard Sunny Adé's music in Nigeria as I was stopped in a traffic jam in a taxi. [I heard these] incredible pedal steel guitar solos screaming out from a big sound system. I went down to ask who was performing that music and I went to meet him right away. Chris Blackwell offered me a label deal around the same time. So I suggested Sunny as our first artist.”
Sunny was Sunday “King Sunny Adé” Adeniyi. Born in 1946 to a Methodist minister and descended from genuine Nigerian royalty, his parents frowned upon music as a career, and were greatly displeased when he quit college in 1963 to pursue it full-time. He first emerged as a percussionist, then a guitarist with Moses Olaiya’s Federal Rhythm Dandies and juju music pioneer Tunde Nightingale, but formed Sunny Adé and His High Society Band in 1965, changing the group’s name to the Green Spots two years later. Before the decade ended, they’d renamed themselves the African Beats, and released dozens of albums in the 1970s, even making it to the UK for a three-month tour in 1975. Adé had his own nightclub and his own label, Sunny Alade – a completely self-contained operation, selling roughly 200,000 copies of each album at home.
Unlike Kuti’s more Westernized Afrobeat, juju music is a lilting Nigerian style based around uptempo guitar melodies and intricate, multi-part rhythms played on talking drums and other percussion instruments. It has elements of calypso and jazz alongside traditional Yoruba rhythms and singing electric guitars. The lyrics are almost entirely sung in the Yoruba language, and live juju performances last for hours, sometimes going all night.
Adé’s version of juju is unique because of the instruments played by his band, which can number up to 20 members. In addition to five guitarists and multiple percussionists, he also features vibraphones, pedal steel guitar and synthesizers. But these innovations are always rooted in traditionalism; in 2009, he told the Boston Globe, “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.”
As soon as Adé signed with Island, he and Meissonnier (who was also serving as his manager) headed into the studio. The Frenchman would oversee all three of Adé’s Island albums: 1982’s Juju Music, 1983’s Synchro System, and 1984’s Aura. Surprisingly, given its sonic sophistication, the making of Juju Music was a quick process. “Sunny had already recorded about 50 albums in Nigeria, so there was no need to demo anything,” Meissonnier recalled in 2003. “So we decided to re-record some of the greatest hits tunes of Sunny that could suit a world audience... It was recorded in two days only, live in Lomé (Togo). I just added synth sounds on top of it in London with Godwin Logie and he did a nice mix. But the preparation took a long time (about a year) in order to choose and shorten the tunes ’cause Sunny had so many to choose from.”
Meissonnier understates the ways in which the Island Records versions of Adé’s songs were radically different. As producer, he added dub effects, including heavy echo and reverb, and bolstered the originals’ simple guitar-and-percussion grooves with spacy keyboards that zipped in and out of the mix. Furthermore, the songs were separated, whereas on the Nigerian albums they were part of side-long medleys. Adé’s gentle tenor vocals hovered in the middle of the endlessly shifting music, his bandmates’ high harmonies gathering around him like a gentle mist. Though almost all the lyrics were in Yoruba, the intricate vocal patterns were extremely memorable – it was entirely possible to find oneself singing along after two or three listens.
Adé’s second Island album, 1983’s Synchro System, was more unified than Juju Music, and an even better reflection of the band. The second half of Synchro System – starting with the title track – was a continuous suite, in the style of his Nigerian albums. Throughout, instruments leap forward and back in the mix, and the intricate polyrhythms stay rock-steady. The album’s first side was made up of more discrete songs, some of which were among his most beautiful. “Mo Ti Mo” is a particular highlight, a lilting, almost Hawaiian ballad driven by an ultra-relaxed guitar figure and Adé’s dreamlike vocal.
The first Linn drum was out... We really experimented a lot. On some of the tracks on Aura there are 15 guitars.
To further introduce Adé to new audiences, Island had the bandleader and the African Beats on tour around the world, from the Montreux Jazz Festival to rock clubs. They taped an appearance on Germany’s renowned live music show Rockpalast, and there’s footage on YouTube of a performance at the massive outdoor Reggae Sunsplash festival.
The increased touring raised Adé’s profile enough in Europe, the UK and even the US that his third and final Island album was his most Westernized effort – even including a high-profile guest star. “Ase,” the nine-minute opening track from Aura (and its single), featured several extended, heavily treated harmonica solos by none other than Stevie Wonder. It was also set to a punchy, very ’80s rhythm track featuring a Linn drum machine alongside the expected congas and talking drums. Indeed, every track on Aura features assertive synthesizers and ticking, programmed beats not far from the hip hop of the time – DJs could quite easily have mixed songs like “Gboromiro” or “Ire” alongside Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” or Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock.” The album took Adé as far from classic juju as he’d ever gotten on record, without bringing him much closer to mainstream Western pop. Meissonnier recalls, “The first Linn drum was out. Sunny and myself were thrilled and excited and found out we could do fake talking drum sounds and mix them with real ones. It was great fun. We really experimented a lot. On some of the tracks on Aura there are 15 guitars.”
While he was signed to Island, Adé’s music wound up on the soundtracks to some Hollywood movies, as well. “365 Is My Number/The Message” can be heard in a dramatic chase scene toward the climax of director Jim McBride’s 1983 remake of Breathless, starring Richard Gere, and “Maajo” is on the soundtrack to the 1986 comedy One More Saturday Night, written and directed by Tom Davis and Al Franken, then of Saturday Night Live. But Adé and the African Beats’ most prominent Hollywood feature came courtesy of one of director Robert Altman’s forgotten films, 1985’s O.C. & Stiggs, which died a quick death in theaters but has achieved a small cult following on DVD. The title characters, two teenaged malcontents who spend the movie harassing a neighbor family in occasionally hilarious fashion, are revealed to be huge Adé fans, and book the band to play a party. In the movie, the African Beats perform “Penkele,” as almost the entire cast dances in the crowd.
Ultimately, King Sunny Adé was an unlikely candidate for mainstream pop success in the English-speaking market. Though his band was phenomenal live, and his joyous personality translated across any language barrier, the music was just a little too exotic for most Western ears. But his success was a crucial breakthrough for the “world music” genre, paving the way for other African artists like Youssou N’Dour, Thomas Mapfumo and others to build North American audiences. After the Island deal ended, Adé disbanded the African Beats and formed an entirely new group. Nonetheless, Juju Music, Synchro System, and Aura are fantastic records, and well worth any open-minded listener’s attention.