King Sunny Ade: An Interview

HB: You are doing something most American bands wouldn’t think
off, touring the country with a 20 odd person entourage.

Ade: 26, sometimes thirty. On this trip it’s just 20 and the
sound engineer.

HB: So everyone takes care of their own instruments.

Ade: Actually, that’s what we used to do. Nobody likes to take
the instruments for anyone else. But now with the PA, and we
have back lines going out all the time.

HB: Did falling out with Island Records after just three records
leave a bad taste in your mouth?

Ade: Actually, I love to respect my agreements. That’s why we
left Island without any problem. I had an agreement with my
manager, my band manager. My manager is my producer, so they had
a disagreement between themselves, my producer and Island,
because I signed for my manger, my manager signed for Island.
Later on, I signed with Island, but my manager was a witness.
Island records wanted to change my producer. Eventually, my
manager has every right to say yes or no, because I have an
agreement with him. So eventually, he is my producer, he is my
manager, so we had to go. But, when they tried some, they gave
us a tape of what the new producer produced, I had the sound, but
I wasn’t pleased with it, and my manager wasn’t pleased with it.
So we left.

HB: I wanted to get your feelings on some of these acts. Are
Ladysmith Black Mambazo the best group doing what they do?

Ade: I would say not. There are some groups that are very good,
they don’t like to go out. There are some, they don’t see the
right person to get them out. There are some that can’t go out
simply because they are under one kind of sponser or record
contract. There are some where the government doesn’t even want
them to go because they are good. Any time they want to go
anywhere, they would discourage them not to go anywhere, unless
unless the government wants them to go. There are groups that
are government backed, sponsored. They are mainly to play within
the country.

But a lot came to the other side of the world, but instead of
the management to push them, as soon as they couldn’t be accepted
everywhere, they dropped them back to where they started. I
think there are different kind of ways that bands are moving
around the whole world by recognition or not being recognised.
But I would say that we have thousands of musicians. There are
some that are very good, but if you asked them to go to another
city, they would tell you they do not want to go out.

Occasionally some go out at a time they feel. People like Okay
Jazz from Zaire, they are big. People like Fela, he goes out
when he likes. He doesn’t look into what kind of money, or how
big, or what kind of programs they want him to do, they go out
when they like. Me, too. But I look into my kind of music. Of
the other music that is going on, our music is different. So we
just want to play it around the whole world and at home. Even my
manager, we have a lot of problems before we go out from Nigeria.

But it’s good to bring your music around the world. There are a
lot of artists that don’t want to, some who do, but they don’t
see the right people to take them, or they are under some kind of
presure, probably by their sponsers, or their contract or by the
government or by the organization that organizes the group. It
might also be from within the group themselves. There are some
groups that are very very good, but they are working. They
consider it to play music a hobby. And the people would tell
them, ‘You’ll make a hell of a lot of money with this music if
you send it out.’ And these artists say no no no. They are not
like that.

It depends on what area but those who are known, are those who
you find. Those who are know, they are very, very good, no doubt
about it. They have the chance to expose their music, they have
the priviledge to record at a better studio, they have the
priviledge to go to a show with other big acts where they can be
exposed, they have a priviledge to be backed by a good recording
company or management. So it depends.

I always wanted to introduce the pedal steel. Then I introduced
the keyboard. But that keyboard wasn’t introduced by me for the
first time. My ancestors had already introduced the accordian.
Now, from that accordian, I just don’t like to have an accordian
on me, because when you’re playing accordian, the people who play
the accordian used to stand still at a microphone and do it the
way, according to the music. But with my kind of music, you have
to dance around, you have to jump up. You can’t jump up with an
accordian on your chest! That’s the area where I introduced a
DX-7 to it. And within a DX-7 you can find so many sounds. If
you want to play flute, it’s good if you can play flute direct,
but inasmuch you can play it on the keyboard, it’s more or less
the same, because the man playing the flute would be playing keyboard. So this is the difference where those groups that are trying to fuse it with
western instruments, but play it in an African way.

Those are the things that people like to relate to when they
want to differentiate their music, or when they want to find
their own kind of identity. I was listening to Kenny G. He was
talking about his saxophone, and how he put his saxaphone through
some kind of effects, and now he has differentiated his own kind
of music. Quickly, you can recognise when you are playing his
music. You say, “Is that not Kenny G.?” and they say, yes.

HB: It’s the same thing with your pedal steel player.

Ade: That’s it! And when you listen to my pedal steel player,
you know that it’s a pedal steel, but it doesn’t sound like
country music, because you expect a pedal steel to be country
music, and it’s not that. It’s Juju music.

HB: How did you pick up on a pedal steel player?

Ade: Actually, we didn’t use pedal steel direct before. It is
when we came over here, we saw the pedal steel. When we saw the
pedal steel, we picked it up and bought it. Before, we used a
guitar with a slide. And the way we slide, we do it in an
African way. We don’t actually want to go along with any other
music in the world. We want to differentiate our own kind of
music. That’s why he has a normal time to come in, and he plays
a dancible sound. Not really to back the song. Not really to
take a solo. He has to play his own kind of solo on a dancible
step, acording to African music.

HB: The music has deep Yoruba roots, but it also has roots in
western tech.

Ade: Everything goes side by side with technology. You can
imagine, before this time, if you want to interview people, you
have a different tape recorder which is not like this, with one
microphone, a long one that you have to put into somebody’s mouth
before you can get it. But now it’s easier. Now, you have it in
stereo, you can keep this tape in your pocket without telling him
you’re recording him, and he wouldn’t know that, and when you
play it back, it sounds so big than before. Everything in the
world is goes by technology. Even the music itself. People
playing the music, you could imagine the way Duke Ellington was
playing his music before, now his songs and another family
playing it now, but they don’t forget the root. That’s the way
technological to music in Africa goes. Before we didn’t use the
PA system and that kind of style here. But now, if we want to
come here, we have to it that way, but play our kind of music as
it is.

HB: So this is the outgrowth of where Yoruba music has to be in
the 20th century?

Ade: No. Not really. Part of it. Yoruba music is as it was.
If you want to carry Yoruba music and play it out, there is no
single western instrument that’s going to be there. But instead
of 22 people playing it, you have to find at least 40 people to
play it as it’s supposed to be. Because when a drummer wants to
sound like the patterns, like in chorus, there must be six
drummers playing at the same time. Now, we want to play a drum,
but instead of six players, we can easily use an effect for two
to sound in chorus.

HB: When you go into the studio with 20 or 30 musicians, how do
you manage to have the music sound so clean. Every record, each
drum has it’s own discernable voice.

Ade: In two ways. All along, I’m always interested in listening
to music. Always interested in listening to every single
instrument. I wanted to hear all my instruments, and I wanted to
hear them clean. What we do, we can record every one of us.
Before you have to know everything you want to play, because the
stereo is not multitrack. If you made a mistake, you’d have to
start again. We had to make sure we fined you very heavily, or
you can lose all the money, the whole royalty. You have to be
ready. We write every song on paper, we paste it on the wall in
the studio. All you have to see is the cue. When they cue you,
one two three four, the red light is on and you start. It is you
and your guitar, you and your microphone. You make sure you
concentrate so well, because you make sure everything goes on.
When they’re stopping you, they stop you. When it’s ended, we
all clap. But if there is a mistake, we don’t really fight each
other, because we believe that mistakes rings no bell, anyone can
make a mistake. But we don’t want you to make a mistake three
times. Do that three times, you are out of that recording. That
means you are not part of us. If you have problems, you should
not go to the studio.

Nowadays, it is easier, because you have multitrack, that’s
part of the technology. With multitracks, taking about 24 at the
same time. We can go in. If we go in as thirty, and the
multi-track is 24, thirty people can go at the same time. You
get four people on one track, three on another, and the rest will
go on their own track. Then those three or four can go in again.
Sometimes the studio can only fit fifteen people at the same
time. So we take all the other microphones out of the
studio, and they’ll be playing as if they were with us. They
have their song to play, and they don’t see us, but we feel as if
we are on the stage. Later on, we can redub it if we need to.

HB: So it’s a matter of being well rehearsed also.

Ade: Sure. What we used to do with the group is getting easier
and easier every day. When I write the song, I write lyrics and
I give them the part that they have to play. When we rehearse
together, everyone knows his kind of part. Then after
rehearsing, we’ll come back to play the same song, and everyone
will play his own feelings. From there we can pick only the best
of what we’ve already rehearsed. So we are now fixing that.
Then we start again.

In our rehearsal room, we have this room for the drummers,
this room for guitarists, that room for the singers. All the
songs are there, we can cue ourselves, we can see each other
through the glass. So when we’re singing the songs, or laying
down the music, we’ll be hearing the songs and playing one kind
of music to fix it. Then the drummers will be rehearsing what
kind of drums they can play to it, then we jam ourselves together
again, we play together and if I hear good ones, very good ones,
I’ll pick it. Or sometimes I’ll tell them what to play, each
person. Sometimes I’ll tell them what to play, but work out how
what they play works with what is written.

We have so many things going around the world, especially in
the music world. We have so many kinds of recording equipment.
The Island record that we made last, (Aura) the one we did with
Stevie Wonder, it was recorded on a video cassette. We mixed it
onto a video cassette.

HB: A Sony Beta video 2-track?

Troutman: He ended up using video tape. I assume that he did it
with a digital recorder, and using the video tape to store the
digital information, then he was playing it back into like
something more elaborate. Very similar to what they did with
Stevie Wonder on Aura.

Ade: Actually, it was so funny. We recorded it on a video
cassette, then he played it back on his own kind of digital
recording, we had just this tiny tape, then we took it back and
we had to play that little tape through a video cassette.
Troutman: The difference is, video tape is $8.98, and recording
tape is… (he laughs)

© Hank Bordowitzunpublished, 1985

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