THERE’S ONLY one thing wrong with King Sunny Ade And His African Beats: they make nearly everything else sound drab and mean-spirited. But that malaise is soon dispelled; when you’re in the grip of this mighty music, your heart simply has no room for pettiness. The 19 Beats played nearly three hours of the most vital and uplifting music I’ve ever heard, and a packed Palais almost burst with joy, our refreshed hearts beating as one.
There’s been one major development since his first visit back in January. Tonight his audience was almost overwhelmingly British hipster, whereas at the Lyceum Nigerian ex-pats composed almost half the revellers. Is it too early to draw a parallel between tonight’s jubilation and the beginning of Bob Marley’s mid-’70s ambassadorship?
One crucial difference is that not a spark of militancy fires the King’s music; the Chairman and his Beats cook the food of love. Quite how this is achieved with such a massive battery of drums and other percussion almost defies analysis. It pulsates and teems rather than calls to arms or unleashes a barrage. Arrayed on a huge sloping horseshoe-shaped stand, the rainbow of rhythm beat out the variegated but united sound of a community in perfect empathy.
The tonal range of all the instruments, even the drums, evokes a choir of voices ranging from chatter to sweet keening. By the same token, the singers integrate so naturally with the rhythmic matrix that they become as percussionists themselves — talking drums and drumming voices.
Add to that a bevy of guitars and you’d expect a cluttered, turgid racket. But no. Their sound is so light and effortless, the arrangements so fluid, precise and yet unforced, that you are reminded of the peaks true master musicians can conquer.
There are no back-seats, but the Chairman, of course, is at the wheel. Characteristically dapper in black shirt and ornate waistcoat, he leads the dance but never hogs the limelight.
Jacob Ajakaye, tubby in his sky-blue robes, sang some gorgeous solo passages, and Demolo Adepoju’s steel guitar is simply one of the most scintillating yet subtle sounds I’ve ever heard.
“E maajo,” called the King. “E maajo!” we, his ecstatic subjects, chanted rapturously.
“It means I love you!”
We love you too.
© Mat Snow, New Musical Express, 9 July 1983