IT HAS ALREADY been wisely stated elsewhere that any thoughts of tribal ceremony soundtracks brought direct from the bush by intrepid white David Fanshawe types should be swiftly put aside when going for your first dip in the vast ocean of African pop music.
However, that initial reaction should not be totally abandoned as the tribal heart beat still proves to be the important foundation for the entire musical structure.
Listen to African pop, in this case Juju music, Nigeria’s most popular style, and you are listening to music that can only have come from that vast, mysterious continent despite the constant and surprising references to more Western traditions that spill over its sides.
Island Records’ important contribution in introducing Africa’s pop music into the mainstream of other more familiar musical channels has been carried out with minimum record company pomp and with a great deal of careful and thoughtful selection.
Africa’s music scene is as complete an entity as that of England’s or America’s and there was no shortage of material for a project such as ‘The Island Records African Series’. And so, after releasing Pablo Lubadika ‘Porthos” ‘Ma Coco’ album on two 12″ singles and the magnificent “Sound D’ Afrique’ sampler as a basic but delightful introduction to the riches in store, Island decided to go one step further and signed up both of Juju’s reigning superstars King Sunny Ade and his closest rival Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey.
Juju Music is the first major release of the series and also the perfect introduction to the work of Sunny Ade an artist who, as part of his 20 strong ensemble the African Beats, manages to move over 200,000 copies of each new album he releases on his Sunny Alade label in Nigeria.
With over forty albums under his belt over the last decade it is obvious that we are dealing with an artist who is in the same league back home say as a Rolling Stones or a Police are over here.
This record is primarily made up of completely rerecorded examples from Sunny Ade’s extensive song book and features brilliantly stylish replays of such numbers as ‘365 Is My Number’ and ‘The Message’ to name but two.
On first hearing, this music the ingredient that immediately appeals is the electric guitar playing, a swooningly gentle rich assortment of delicately played patterns that swirl in a continuous eddying flow and help to punctuate the rising and falling rhythmic conversation of the assorted talking drums, congas and bongos which provide the essential and earthy undercurrent to the music.
As an “extra”, traces of electronic effects have been allowed to glide in on some of the tracks, which, while I was ignorant of African pop’s pure power, I found a welcome addition to the beat.
Listening to some of Sunny’s back catalogue, however, Check E for example, reveals this new device as an unnecessary and somewhat annoying diversion which appears, on reflection, to have been slipped in as an afterthought to make it more commercially palatable for ears weaned on electro-bop.
That remains my only complaint about this tender slice of high grade dance music.
Whether or not African pop catches on in a big way is irrelevant, the fact is that here at last is an “alternative” truly worth checking out regardless of musical taste.
Be warned, though, a stroll down the road to Africa’s vibe can lead to whole new routes opening up to the listener and you may never find the way back to the musical garden path you have been wandering up and down for so long.
I’m never going back.
© Edwin Pouncey, Sounds, 10 July 1982