‘Baba Mo Tunde’ – King Sunny Ade’s musical salvation
King Sunny Ade – Baba Mo Tunde
Review by Doug Heselgrave
The artist once called ‘the Bob Marley of Africa’ shakes off his past, records a comeback and turns in one of the greatest ‘world music’ albums of the decade
The music world owes an inestimable debt to artists like Nigeria’s King Sunny Ade. Today, it’s easy to hear music from singers and players from all over the globe. World music acts from Africa, Asia and the Balkans tour regularly throughout North America and Europe competing with mainstream music acts for listener’s money and attention. Folk festivals that were once the sole domain of singer-songwriter acts from the west now share the roster and stage with performers from far flung locales such as Tuva and Timbuktu.
The amazing thing is that this change has taken place in just a few decades, and styles of music that once relied on novelty value to attract an audience have seen the development of critical and involved fan bases the world over. The exotic sway that initially attracted adventurous listeners to such performers has been replaced by a more critical and mature appreciation of their music. It’s a situation that’s easy to take for granted, but without pioneering artists like Ravi Shankar, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade none of this would have happened.
King Sunny Ade has long been one of Nigeria’s most popular musical acts and he has been a star throughout Africa for many decades, but he only came to prominence in the west in the early eighties. After Bob Marley’s death in 1981, Chris Blackwell – the CEO of Island Records who exposed the Jamaican singer’s music to the world at large in the early seventies – began casting about for another non-western act to throw his money and considerable influence behind. After searching the world over, he chose King Sunny Ade and his band, The African Beats, believing that Ade’s guitar heavy sound would find a welcoming audience amongst the same people who had supported Marley’s rise to stardom.
‘Ju Ju Music’, Ade’s debut on Island Records was a huge critical success and things were looking good for the Nigerian singer and guitarist. A sold out club tour of North America and Europe in 1983 and a subsequent tour of larger venues with the hugely popular Black Uhuru the next year were very promising indicators of a bright future for the Nigerian superstar. Yet, after the initial excitement generated by Ade’s debut, record sales stalled and subsequent releases receiving only a fraction of the press that greeted ‘Ju Ju music.’ Even high profile guest appearances by artists like Stevie Wonder on follow up albums released on the Island imprint like ‘Synchro System’ and ‘Aura’ did little to generate any new excitement.
In some ways, it’s easy to see why this happened. Perhaps Chris Blackwell did King Sunny Ade a disservice by so often comparing him to Bob Marley. Other than coming from the third world, the two artists had little in common. King Sunny Ade was a prince from an influential clan in Nigeria and unlike Fela Kuti his outspoken countryman, he rarely sang about political issues, and when he did he sang in Yoruba and not in English. It is important to remember that Bob Marley – despite the exoticism of his appearance and music for people in the seventies – fit squarely into the rock and folk music pantheon. Like Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and James Brown, Marley challenged establishment ideals of how a black person should perform and behave, but rebellion was part of the currency of popular music in the post sixties world and in this sense Marley was only fulfilling the requirement of any serious artist of the day.
King Sunny Ade by contrast was much harder to market. He resisted every attempt by Chris Blackwell to ‘meddle’ with his music by not letting him remix his recordings or add rock friendly elements to the tracks the way he did on some of Marley’s most successful albums. As a result, Ade and Island parted company with Blackwell devoting much of his time to the fledgling Irish band, U2.
After leaving Island, Ade released ‘Live Ju Ju’ – a stunning live record on Rykodisc that captured the intensity of his three hour long concerts, and attracted a new audience of listeners more disposed to his swirling improvised polyrhythms. Often sounding more like ‘Africa’s Grateful Dead’ rather than its Bob Marley, King Sunny Ade released three albums on Mesa Records and toured the world to small but dedicated audiences until the end of the nineties when he retired to his home in Nigeria.
Not much was heard from Ade until two years ago when Mesa re-released ‘Seven Degrees North’ – one of his later albums on the label – to coincide with a reunion tour of North America in the summer of 2008. On that tour, the sixty two year old Ade gave some of the best performances of his lifetime, so encouraged by the rapturous attention he received, he returned to the studio to record his first new album in more than a decade. Happily, ‘Baba Mo Tunde’ , the resulting two disc set features some of the strongest material he has ever released.
One of the things that distinguishes King Sunny Ade’s music from that of most other musicians is the collective approach he and the band bring to the songs. Even though Ade is nominally the leader and his guitar melodies often define each song, his ‘star free’ approach to music allows opportunities for all of his musicians to shine. Every member of his band plays a crucial role as they swap leads, trade melodies and change rhythmic emphasis several times throughout each track. The songs and their polyrhythmic textures are obviously so deeply imprinted in each member of the band that the songs sound effortless and flowing as each musician locks into the groove without ever seeming to break a sweat or worry about what to play. No matter how many times one listens to these songs, it’s impossible not to be drawn in by the chugging and chattering talking drums as they encourage Ade and his army of guitarists through some very challenging compositions.
The first disc on ‘Baba Mo Tunde’ primarily features re-recordings of King Sunny Ade classics and updated versions of concert staples. In this way, the album serves as a brilliant introduction to Ade’s work, but more than that it heralds the long awaited musical rejuvenation of one of the planet’s most gifted artists. Songs like Baba Feran Mi and the iconic “Emi Won N’lle Ya O” are so uplifting and energetic that it’s difficult to reconcile the slight and unassuming figure that King Sunny Ade presents with the musical maelstrom that he regularly unleashes. As good as the songs on the first disc are, it’s not until one plays the second disc in the set that things really start to cook and fly off into the stratosphere. The disc begins with a 31 minute version of the title track which for the first time captures the full force of Ade’s music in a studio session. If the idea of a song clocking in at more than half an hour is enough to scare you away, don’t worry – there are enough musical ideas, themes, riveting solo and vocal performances in this song to carry it for another thirty minutes. As soon as the song winds down, it is followed directly by a pared down 15 minute version of the track remixed by King Britt, the respected house and hip hop DJ from Philadelphia. Unlike many remixes of world music, Britt doesn’t try to bend the song to his will by imposing unnecessary electronic effects and ambient noises. For the most part, he simply ‘cuts to the chase’ and allows listeners to experience an abbreviated more beat heavy version of the existing track. It was a daring, and ultimately successful experiment that serves to make Ade’s challenging extended tracks more accessible and club friendly.
King Sunny Ade’s recorded catalogue includes more than 200 full length albums. Of these, perhaps a dozen are available outside of Africa and of all of these ‘Baba Mo Tunde’ is perhaps the most worthwhile. This is an essential album by one of the living treasures of world music and deserves to be heard by a large audience. Whether or not it succeeds on commercial terms is unimportant. It represents a bold artistic reclamation of King Sunny Ade’s particular brand of African music and is a recording whose importance cannot be stressed enough. ‘Baba Mo Tunde’ is truly indispensible.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot
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