King Sunny Ade and his African Beats: Synchro System (Island)

IN A THREADBARE year for outstanding pop records, Synchro System is something to set excitement aflame – a torch song for the powers of rhythm. It’s the most scintillant and perfectly honed African record to be customised for European ears to date.

It scores touchdown first by dismantling most of the sacrosanct preconceptions and rules knotted around the idea of ‘African pop’. Ade’s group is gigantic – all eighteen of them are singularly depicted on the cover, a roll-call that signals the King’s democratic party line – and they are all constantly involved; yet the record sounds as breezily open and airy as a summer sky.

Great batteries of drums boom and click in the machine room without any burdensome, excluding atmosphere of unknowable tribalism. Voices – grand and proud voices that traverse a scale from opulent bass to mischievous tenor – wait between this massed rank of pulsebeats and exultantly call the lyrics. A mixture of chant, talk and singing: a newly vocal sound.

Repetition, which some might call the cul-de-sac of the greatest black music, is outside close detection in Ade’s music. There are the hypnotic shuffles, the booting circular swing, the regular bounce in the rhythm: but there is no stuck-needle groove. I would guess Ade has a low boredom threshold, for he permits no step to outstay its welcome. Every time they double back a fresh leaf has been turned.

Of course there are mannerisms and callsigns that punctuate the African Beats’ language. Ade’s wistful, heartsore voice, one of the most affecting sounds African pop has yet revealed, leads call and response systems with his other singers that layer every song. The guitars have the sparkly tang, the bass the supple and unpredictable vibration – that much anyone of the briefest acquaintance will recognise.

Ade’s inspiration as a composer doesn’t flag over forty minutes. ‘Mo Ti Mo’, ‘Synchro System’ and ‘Tolango’ have the vitality of instantly written ideas and the grace and wisdom of real melodic imagination. Melody, a currency deflated to an impoverished wallet of recycled tricks by Western pop, grows and breathes in Ade’s music. It evolves out of rhythm as it was meant to, instead of being grafted clumsily to an artificial thrash.

On top of this natural gift comes a sophistication that marks out Synchro System as a major step forward. Martin Meissonier’s production is a rethink of JuJu music that transfigures Ade’s group without betraying it. Percussion has scarcely ever sounded so kaleidoscopically diverse, so simultaneously deep and solid and bright as here.

‘Maajo’ opens with a vocal shout that is dropped for a drum work-out that’s gloriously self-sustaining – all we hear is beating skins and an occasional electronic flash and it’s still a total music. Nothing seems to be missing.

That character infuses everything here. When a synthesiser suddenly pops into ‘E Saiye Re’ it sounds like a magical new instrument has just been discovered. The only worry is that in this glistening wonderland of skilled recording the truest complexion of Ade’s group may go missing.

But what you remember most is a gentleness, something no producer’s streamlining can fake. As joyous as Synchro System is, there is a vulnerability in the King’s orchestra that still softens the hardest sheen Meissonier could have put on them. A long, almost endless dance – a song of life-enhancing delight – and a humanity that is more than a backbeat. It is a living soul.

© Richard CookNew Musical Express, 11 June 1983

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