Nigeria's Elvis, King Sunny Adé, Hopes to Seduce the West with the Gentle Power of Juju
updated 10/31/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 10/31/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST
So far, he seems to be right. His recent 27-city U.S. tour was a success, and most critics couldn't say enough about, as one put it, the "relentlessly hypnotic energy" of Adé and his 22-member band, the African Beats. His American debut LP, JuJu Music, made "most American dance music sound positively ungainly," wrote another reviewer. His concerts drew a cross-cultural sampler from dashiki-clad urban blacks to slam-dancing punks. In seeming certification of his trendy status, Adé will return later this month to film a brief bit in a Robert Altman film, O.C. and Stiggs.
Much of the interest in the King, no doubt, stems from novelty: Few Americans have heard juju, a generic term that comes from the name of a small African tambourine. At its heart are gently mesmerizing rhythms, layered with call-and-response singing (in Yoruba, an African language) and spiced with guitar, synthesizer and talking drums. The effect is somewhere between a laid-back Caribbean steel band and the sound track to a National Geographic wildlife special gone electric. Unlike one of its not-too-distant cousins, reggae, Adé's juju is apolitical. Says Adé, "I call it party music and want people to have a good time."
He has a reputation for providing just that in Nigeria, where his 40-odd records have sold some 200,000 copies each. Although he isn't really a king—the nickname comes from his musical stature—he is a prince of Nigeria's Yoruba people, whose traditional knife scars he bears on his left cheek. Adé says he fell in love with juju early, although his parents (his father was a church organist) looked down on it as unsuitably common. "In Africa every beggar on the street can play and sing," explains Adé. Nonetheless, he dropped out of school at 16 to follow juju, and became one of the first, in the late '60s, to add electric instruments to the music's traditional rhythms. His break came when he wrote Challenge Cup, a hymn to Nigeria's national soccer team, which sold 500,000 copies. His success since has allowed him to start a record label and a nightclub in Lagos ("In my place you don't have to sit quiet," he says proudly), as well as to provide amply for his three wives and 12 children. They are, he says, one big happy family. "One wife manages my recording company and one manages my nightclub," says Adé. "If they have any jealousies, they keep them hidden." Besides, three wives isn't that many. "My grandfather," says Adé, "has 30."
With family like that, it's not surprising that Adé gets homesick when he visits the U.S. Adé says he likes the people he's met here, and the reliable tap water and electricity (the latter are luxuries in Nigeria). But usually Adé can't wait to get back to his large home in a relatively comfortable Lagos neighborhood. "I miss when the little kids are coming home from school and stop in front of my house and shout my name," says Adé. "Then I show my-self and we wave to each other."