King Sunny Ade: Sunny Side Of The Beat

Edwin Pouncey meets the ‘Minister Of Enjoyment’ and monarch of juju music KING SUNNY ADE

I READ somewhere that you are an apostle or something…

“I am an apostle in the church but I don’t preach, I only preach through my music.”

I ARRIVED punctually at the fashionable Barracuda Club clutching my invitation card that would eventually grant me admittance into Sunny Ade’s welcoming party.

Also bang on time was the chief guest of honour magnificently robed in blue and white who along with his similarly garbed entourage were just stepping out of a limo and preparing themselves for what must have been to them an awesome evening’s activity.

I later learned that Sunny and his elegant party were almost refused admission by the over efficient jobsworths who haunted the main entrance because they failed to produce their invites.

Meanwhile the welcoming committee prowled below, eyeing each other up and down while steadily demolishing tumblers of mentholated ‘juju punch’, the room into which we were ushered was also inhabited by lumpen pseudo-antique looking furniture, a giant video, screening that Dolly Parton Nine To Five movie for some mysterious purpose and ‘festooned’ with a previous years Halloween decorations.

The grinning cardboard skeletons pinned on the walls reminded me of what Sunny had said to me that afternoon in reply to my question about the name ‘juju’.

“It has nothing to do with magic, no, or black medicine, we only use that name for that kind of music.”

Sunny Ade’s Juju Music album was magical enough however to change my entire thinking about music and pointed out a brand new direction to take when listening to music.

Centuries of tradition and musical knowledge previously uncovered, due to a certain amount of ignorance on my part, was suddenly let loose in one fluid, quicksilver rush that sharpened up my dulled senses.

My meeting with juju music superstar Sunny Ade (pronounced A-day) was therefore a unique opportunity to delve further into a musical form that has totally intrigued me from the moment I first heard it, a music that has now become a regular and permanent addition to my listening habits.

Sunny was only too happy to oblige by answering my barrage of questioning as calmly and courteously he unfurled to me the story of juju and his career. I decided to begin by asking him the big one…

TO BEGIN with perhaps you could explain the basic origins of juju music.

“The Yoruba tribe is where the juju music originated from, it’s the kind of music played for a festival.

“The juju is a name which the colonials gave to black medicine at that time, anything that looked strange to them like black medicine or magic they called it juju and when black medicine was being demonstrated by the people and they were dancing to the music they said that it was juju music, so it is the name we use now but it has nothing to do with magic or black medicine.

“The music has been refined by its successors, people like Akambi Ege who gathered the people together because the music before was played in different places, but he got people together to make music as a group so that it could be played for pleasure as well as at festival time.

“This was in the early twenties and then along came people like Tony King who came with a different kind of tambourine, they introduced a cane covered, skin tambourine which they played this way, ‘CHOOKA CHOOKA CHOOKA DA CHOOKA CHOOKA’ and they called it juju because when they played the instrument, it made a ‘juh juh’ sound like that and they maintained that name all along.

“Eventually it got to the other Yoruba tribes, we have almost 15 languages within the Yoruba speaking areas with different kinds of dialect too and many different types of instruments all playing their own kind of music.

“So when they called this tambourine the juju they wanted people to forget about what the colonials meant by juju, they don’t want anything to do with medicine or black magic, they called that tambourine the juju because it sounds juju like.

“It was so unusual to have that tambourine, it was like an innovation and when it was introduced the people totally accepted it, they wanted to hear that thing all along and after that they wanted to hear the talking drums so the juju was giving a guideline to the music.

“Nowadays juju music features electric guitars, but at that time there was no electricity, they were using the acoustic guitar but fixing with it and singing all along with it. So many versions have appeared but all along it’s juju music because they have to play that tambourine.”

Who were the big names to come out of juju music during this period?

“Well then came Tunde Nightingale, he tunes his guitar in a Spanish way and has played from the very start, he has a voice like a woman’s voice very tiny and high pitched and people gave him the name Tunde Nightingale because he sang so high. His own style is juju but he has his own definition called Awembi music.

“Then came I K Dairo, he too plays juju music in a different form, instead of playing a lot with the tambourine he brings an accordian into it to represent horns. I K Dairo also introduced the talking drum which they were using from far back, but I K Dairo’s style was not to use it continuously but only occasionally in the music.

“When he dropped the accordian, then he picked up the talking drum and started playing his own style for which Queen Elizabeth awarded him with the MBE.”

How did that come about?

“He deserved it because he’s a man who made juju music a profession to be proud of. The family can now allow their children to go and play music because he showed a respect for the profession, and with the many things he did and achieved he made many boys love music and participate more because they used to call musicians beggars.”

HOW DID you become inolved with the music?

“I joined a band and played something similar to Tunde Nightingale’s style and then when I formed my own band in 1966 I continued to play in that style because Tunde Nightingale’s style, that brand of juju music, is only one and he was the only one that played in that style.

“I K Dairo has 1-2,000 different bands playing like him and like all the past artists they have so many imitators, but Nightingale’s style is the only one.

“So I sat down and studied it and said to myself, I’m in love with the music and I really don’t want to go into pop or jazz or highlife or anything so I’m going to stay with juju.

“So looking at Tunde Nightingale I said, nobody copies his style so I will go into this style, he used to play the guitar to back the song he was singing but I decided to use my guitar to play a danceable thing, I play my guitar as if I’m playing a drum.”

When did you begin to record your music?

“I happened to make a record for the first time in 1967 which, when it came out, sold about 25 copies. Well I’m happy that they even bought one, because there are a lot of musicians who never have the opportunity to record.

“We only had two recording studios in Nigeria at that time and they were owned by foreign people, EMI and Decca, and you would see a lot of bands queued outside.

“If at that time we go there and say we want to record they would put us on the waiting list for the next year because they have to record one band, look at the market and test it before they can go onto another band.

“We happened to get a new independent company interested, they saw me where we were rehearsing one night and they sent a woman over to ask me if I already had an agreement with somebody and when I said I hadn’t, they said they would like to try me.

“Then we went to NBC (Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation) studio because the company didn’t have any studio and there was no time or chance to book a proper studio because they are all fully booked, all the time.

“We did the first single which, translated into English, was called ‘God is Massive’ and was released on the African Songs Limited label. I stayed with them till 1974, from 1966 till 1974.

“The first record wasn’t successful, but I’d call it a success in as much that they buy 25 copies of that record which for an unknown artist is a good start for me.

“In fact for any artist to record and get it put out as a first record which can be played anywhere, I think is an achievement.”

How did that very first record sound?

“It sounds like Tunde Nightingale’s music because that was the kind of music we were trying to copy.”

Did you have the electric guitar then?

“We had the electric guitar by then, I was playing electric guitar right from the start but there was only one guitar at that time, no bass guitar, no tenor guitar, no Hawaiian guitar, nothing like drums, nothing like a synthesiser, nothing like vibraphones, nothing like that.

“That single it doesn’t click but it was my first record and I treasure it so much.”

What did you do for your next record?

“When I sat down with the boss of the company we tried to think about what kind of songs or music we should play to break through on probably the next one, in as much that the first one sold 25 copies then the next one should at least sell double or triple that amount.

“Then we both came up with a suggestion. I am a football fanatic and there was a club called Stationary Stores Club, the club is owned by the boss of a company, that sells books and magazines called Stationary Stores Limited and they have the Stationary Stores football club within the company.

“The name of the boss is Mr Adu Baju so they occasionally call the team Adu Baju Babies or they also call them Flaming Flamingoes, you see the Europeans came to Africa and they saw them playing such good football that they gave them that name, Flaming Flamingoes.

“So I said is it possible to sing in praise of that club? At least the club’s 50,000 fans might like it and the Vice President of the company said ‘Oh that’s a good idea’ and the President of the company said ‘Yes, that’s what I want’.

“So we started to write it but we must not praise them too much or make it sound like a commercial or a political thing or anything, that might cause them to be penalised.”

So how did the lyrics to that one go?

“Well the lyrics go something like ‘Sunny Ade went to the stadium to go and watch the football, But the surprise he saw was the Adu Baju Babies, the Stationary Stores doing wonders, In fact before I sat down they scored one. Before I look at the kind of seat where I sat I found out they had scored another one, Before I concentrate to see which is the Stationary Stores they started dribbling and I hear AYYA AYYA on the field and they’ve scored three, And I believe they are the best so let’s congratulate them, let’s congratulate them’.

“The moment they played the final they became the cup winners for that year, that was 1967 but the record cannot come out until 1968 due to some problems.

“When the company put the record out on the market it sold very well, in fact nearly 100,000 copies within two months and after three months of the records release I happened to be given a gold disc for the first time.

“It was like a dream come true and since then I’ve tried my very best and have never gone low. From there I went on to EPs and in 1970 we recorded our very first album.”

What was the title for your first album?

“The first album was Sunny Te De which means ‘Sunny Has Come’. The first side of that album is strict, no tracks, just one long track on one side and then five tracks on the other side. And the people love it so much, they prefer me to continue recording straight down without breaking the tracks.

“That one sold over 300,000 albums in Nigeria and we have continued to put them out like that ever since.”

You also recorded several albums in London didn’t you?

“The first one was recorded at EMI in 1971 and in 1977-78 we recorded about six albums in London which were released on my own Sunny Alade label.”

What made you decide to start your own label?

“Well it was in 1974 when I decided to leave African Songs because I feel they don’t do a good job for me anymore, there remained only one year of my contract to go. I was taken to court where they sued both myself and the band.

“While the case was going on the judge decided that they didn’t respect the contracts and told me to wait six months before leaving and pay £200 to the company.”

That wasn’t too bad though was it?

“Not bad! So since then we have been on our own. We don’t market the records ourselves, when we have finished the master tapes we give them to somebody. Any company who’s interested in buying it, we sell it to them but they have to put it out on my label because I want my label to exist.”

YOU’VE CITED Tunde Nightingale as an influence but what about American or European artists, did they influence your style in any way? What music was coming to the part of Africa where you lived?

“When I was young we used to listen to what we called ‘geevee’ records played by Spanish or Caribbean bands. We called it geevee because they put it on the His Masters Voice label and we called it by the number on the record from GV 1, you know, numbers like that. So when a new record was released you knew which one to expect, say if you had GV 10 then next would come GV 11.

“For me to listen I have to be a disc driver, you know wind it, first you have to wind it and then you can sit down and listen, change it and start it to play again. So that always got into me but all along I never thought I would become a musician.

“When I was mature we listened to people like Mighty Sparrow, Jim Reeves, may his soul rest in peace, people like Jimmy Cliff and reggae.

“The first reggae record I ever heard that made me interested was, I don’t remember the artist now but I used to hear it on the radio, it went ‘Blow, blow that fire, Blow, oh blow that fire’, it’s an old record. From there I heard about Jimmy Cliff and I admired his records, then came Bob Marley whose style was quite different, then U Roy, Third World….

“When I turned professional in music I liked Jimi Hendrix, I loved the way he made his guitar cry, I liked some of the effects he got from his guitar. And people like George Benson, who happens to be my favourite now.”

YOU ALSO own a club in Lagos called the Ariya Club, what’s the story behind that?

“The Ariya Club. The notion behind it is that I wanted a place where I could assemble so many of my fans once a week so that I can play something for them and see their reactions, because occasionally they write something on a piece of paper and slot it into a box at the gate to give me their opinions about what they thought of the band.

“It’s a meeting point to get together to see me because we are always on the road, so by having a place we can play, the people can come around to the centre of my base which is in Lagos.

“Sometimes when we go out on the road to perform we play in different halls in different towns and sometimes you cannot hear the perfect sound because the acoustics are so bad.

“With my night club I did it the African way, it is like we are playing there where we can assemble 1,000 people on that one night.”

How long does an average performance last?

“It depends on the reaction of the crowd, I can start from ten at night and go on till six in the morning without stopping and the people still keep on dancing, keep on enjoying themselves, sometimes they call me ‘Dancing Machine’.

“If the house is full and there’s no chance for them to see the foot work or the dancing system we have to keep them dancing all along, changing the sound and changing into different kinds of lyrics, talk to them and they talk back to me.

“Like occasionally I will say ‘Check E’ which means check it, then they will respond to me from the floor. Check E means a lot of things like check your baby, check she’s still around with you, or check that sound, or check yourself, or check your pocket, or check your drinks. When I say check it, they will say ‘He is there’ so the response point is, he is there.

“And occasionally when the drums are singing or talking there is another response, this time between the drummer and the crowd because they know what he is saying on the drum.

“If the talking drummer was here, sitting here and playing the drums he could be asking me a question and telling me an answer through the drums, it is a matter of sitting down and listening to what they are saying, first of all let him concentrate on one language then you will know what he is saying.”

Can you tell him to change to another piece of music while you’re still playing?

“Yes my lead guitar, it is the one giving the guidelines, when I don’t play it at all I can just scratch it, that keeps the beat on and when I want the music slow I scratch it slow.

“You see when I want them to sing or want anybody to change, I can tell them on my guitar. When the music is going fast and I want to change a song, I will sing the song on the guitar and then I will just tap it slow, ‘PEEeeeweeeEEEE’ and then ‘Riiimmmmmm’, the band will click into it just like that, then the song will go as slow as that particular tempo goes.

“We have to concentrate so much on the talking drums, there are three, one is a side drum, one is keeping the tempo, keeping the beat and one can slot in any proverb at any time.

“The moment we have finished a song the audience want to hear what the talking drum has to say and they enjoy it, they laugh and react to it, they can say ‘NoNoNoNoNoNo don’t say that’.

“Occasionally, when we are about to go at closing time, the talking drum can say ‘Ladies and gentlemen we are going home, thank you very much we are going home’ then then crowd say ‘NoNoNoNo’ so then the drum will ask them ‘Don’t you want us to go home?’ and they will say ‘Keep on playing’, then the drum will tell them ‘You are asking too much’ and then they will start abusing him.”

What does the name of your club mean?

“Ariya is just the slang for enjoyment. Some of my fans call me ‘Minister Of Enjoyment’ so our night club, within our friends, is called ‘The Ministry Of Enjoyment’, like Fela Kuti calls his club ‘The Shrine’.

“When we get together there is nothing like fights, nothing like shooting, we’ve never experienced bombs, we’ve never experienced somebody kill somebody in our night club and if that happened the government wouldn’t mind closing the club.”

IS THERE any truth to the rumour that both you and Ebenezer Obey (also a signing on Island’s Africa Series) are close rivals?

“I won’t say he’s my rival, he plays his own music and I play mine. I don’t see the reason why they should call him my rival.

“It’s a good thing that the two bands rose together at the same time, it has never been before in the history of Nigeria that two bands just spring up like that at the same time.

“Lately they have started playing some record company politics between us and the fans too because my club is near his own club and we played on the same day and the clubs are also on the same street.

“Soon they started putting politics into it, there were fights in one club, those who created the fights there come over to start another here. Then they started to say I was the one who instructed these fights to take place.

“Later on we found out all of this and we change the dates of the club, I play on Wednesday and he plays on a Thursday.

“We are only playing juju music in different forms, his own style is quite different to mine.

What are your opinions of Island Records’ interest in juju and other African music?

“I believe they came at the right time. I don’t need to tell them what they will achieve if they keep it the way they are doing it now. They will achieve so many things in Africa because there is so much music in Africa that hasn’t even shown up yet.

“Now it is the turn of Africa because I believe that the source and root of percussion and good music comes from Africa because they play everything in Africa to make music, everything.

“You might see someone just tapping his mouth, two people may be singing along and he’ll be tapping his mouth and you will hear the drums there, you will hear everything there.

“And while he’s playing, one of the other boys will put a cigarette packet of something between his fingers and blows it, it sounds like a trumpet, high as a trumpet, you can sing along with it in different forms.

“We have so many things like that and all the different kinds of bands too.

“I don’t say they should not go ahead with their other artists but they should at least give an attention to Africa.”

Sunny’s parting shot should also apply to anyone out there in readerland who have still to pay attention to the African beat. Just scratch underneath all the fashionable gloss that has inevitably coated the music and you’ll still come up with sold gold.

© Edwin PounceySounds, 28 August 1982

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