King Sunny Ade: King of Kings

King Sunny Ade and his African Beats: Lyceum, London

SUNNY ADE’S one-off show was a capital E Event. Touts plied their trade outside, whilst P.C. Plod made getting in with a ticket only slightly less difficult than getting in without. Once inside, assorted students, Westwood clones, rockbiz folk and a fair smattering of famous faces jostled at the bar. London’s entire Nigerian population seemed to be there too, many arrayed in splendid robes such as worn by one lady where the fabric turned out, on closer inspection, to be printed with the Volvo insignia. This cultural cross-fertilisation symbolised the whole evening.

Without any support, the eighteen-piece King Sunny Ade and his African Beats hit the stage. And there they stayed for well over two hours, playing some of the most exhilarating yet subtle music heard in London for ages.

Interlocking layers of rhythmic patterns create a seamless loop which at one and the same time combines an unforced airy simplicity with a hugely complex range of inflection and texture. Against this background, voices, guitars and talking drums interact with each other to set up not just a call and response, but a whole conversation. Phrases are stated, repeated and improvised upon with relaxed fluidity and grace, yet never losing sight of the starting point.

The singers harmonise with warm and easy precision which complements the lilting, tangy guitars. The tunings differ from those in the European tradition, hence moods and nuances are evoked which have no direct familiar equivalent. More unexpected is how the steel guitar has been plucked from its customary role as accompaniment to ‘Blue Hawaii’ or country’s hoedown /breakdown axis. Demola Adepoju has turned this most comical and sentimental of instruments into one of electrifying resonance and irrepressible playfulness.

We are melted by the warmth into a gently undulating sea of empathy and pleasure. Spicing this joy was a running joke whereby an immaculately clad, very jovial man would dance around on stage, literally pressing handfuls of banknotes onto each of the musicians before settling down to take pictures of the band and audience, grinning broadly throughout. Maybe he was the promoter.

Whoever he was, this whole scene did not detract one iota from the music because it was so in keeping with its spirit. Sunny Ade attests to the universality of the musical language. It may not say precisely the same thing to all people, but Sunny Ade’s message of enjoyment and brotherly love is plain to anyone who has ears to hear.

But if tonight was a little short on the finesse so evident on the Juju Music LP, it was only because the Lyceum’s acoustics deaden quietly stated shadings and details. However the fruity opulence of this relic from Britain’s imperial heyday provided a paradoxically appropriate setting for the triumphant acclamation of an African King.

© Mat SnowNew Musical Express, 29 January 1983

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