Some kings are cruel monarches that abuse their people and wage war with their neighbors and other nasty business. Other royalty are much more begign and kind, sharing beautiful, grooving music with the world- this is the kind of royalty that King Sunny Ade is. Though most Westerners began hearing his name in the late seventies, Ade has been active in Nigerian music since the ’50’s as he’s cultivated and developed the endlessly dancable style of music known as Juju (where he of course is its King). Listening to some of his seventies releases on his own Sunny Alade label and hearing him today, there’s the pleasure of knowning that he is still supreme ruler of Juju, having spent years as an internationally-known musical ambassador. His busy schedule includes his label as well as producing, singing, writing his own music with a huge band. Then there is the work that he does with cultural centers and music unions. After some forty years as a musician, he is more active than ever and all of us are the better for it.
I had the pleasure of holding court with his Majesty just before a show at Tramps in New York City, in the middle of an international tour. Supreme thanks to Andrew C. Frankel and Carol Hawks for all of their help.
PSF: How has this tour been going?
I would say that the tour has been very nice, especially this time I have a new CD on the market. I would say this time is a little bit different in the sense that whenever I would play before, they want to get a hold of any of my music but they wouldn’t get it. Now, they can find it and love to hear what they heard at the show. So, we’re very happy about this tour.
PSF: You’re about to go into the studio and do some more new recordings, right?
Definitely yes. I used to do new recordings every 6 months. Over here, we do it every year or two. Instead of me going up to Nigeria for me to record again, we use the opportunity (a tour of the States) to record. America has better studios. This time, we recorded this one, Odu, in Louisiana. We want to do another one in New York with the atmosphere and change of environment. We just want to do something different. My best is yet to come.
PSF: How does recording in different studios in different cities effect your music?
Sometimes, you feel a certain way about a place in your mind. When you go there, you have the environment and you say ‘this is where I love to go, this is what I love to do.’ You place yourself in an environment, you have to uplift yourself first- not that you just went there to do a recording. Even there, you don’t go there before, when your mind says ‘I love to go to this place,’ when you get there, no matter how good or bad you feel, your moral must be lifted up because you love the place. You heard about the studio over there and you want to do it there. That’s the motivation behind every place I want to record.
PSF: You record with a 19-piece band with a lot of singers, guitarists and drummers. How do you co-ordinate everything through a large band like that?
It’s more or less like a father and his children. It’s like they got used to me and we all got used to each other. When we are in the studio, we always have the feeling that we’re playing for the audience on the stage. So it’s like a family unit. So it’s not really that difficult.
It’s only difficult when we used to do songs in Nigeria for a long stretch, like about 20 minutes. If you make a mistake in between, you have to come back and start again! But it’s very simple when you do a song for 3 minutes or 4 minutes or 7 minutes. Here, if you make a mistake, you can redo it or overdub it or start again. So it’s easier as a group.
PSF: So you have a preference for doing shorter songs now?
Well, I try to do that. Over here, you love short songs. In Nigeria, especially Western Nigeria, they let you do 90 minute songs on a CD. For different varities, it’s better to keep it short. So what they like over there is different from what they like here. By tradition, it’s always 3 minutes or 4 minutes here. We have almost the same thing but it’s like being in a strech. Like being in a discotech, you have music going non-stop. If any recording company wants me to do that, no problem, I’m ready. (laughs). But we can get it in number one recordings of the land (Nigeria) at 6 or 7 minutes, which is almost double a song here.
PSF: You originally started out a percussionist, right?
Yes, I started with percussion. At the age of seven, I would like to follow my mother to church and they had some percussion there where they would play traditional music. I always liked to be in between those people playing percussion. From there, I started touching the drums. My mother and family didn’t want me to do that though. Occassionally, I would go there and I was very small among the percussionists there. So what I do was I would make sure some people would be covering me so when my mother would look back, I would try to dogde her. (laughs) One person would be in front of me like a human shield. My father was a real slow, careful man, doing everything in a deliberate way, even moving a chair. But that didn’t go with the kind of music I wanted to play- I wanted people to SWEAT. When he died, only my mother could stop me. So I would explain to her, ‘this is the world that I want to chose. Let me go.’
Luckily for me, I went down to another town with my brother to places where they played music. They didn’t know me there so you are more or less like a band member. When I left school in 1962, I left Oshogbo in Western Nigeria straight to Lagos, which is like going from New York to Washington D.C.. In Lagos, I joined a group and they don’t know me there. I didn’t present myself as royalty or anything. I presented myself as a student. When I started playing percussion, everybody was so happy. They said ‘it’s better that you join this group but you are too small.’ So I have to pump up my age. I was then 17 years old but I told them I am 19 and a half. From there, I started playing until I taught myself how to play guitar. I graduated from band-boy to the leader of a group. (laughs)
PSF: What led you to want to be a professional musician yourself?
You see, in the Western side of Nigeria, we have so much cultural hertiage and dances, traditional music and various sounds. Being from royalty, they used to do a festival around Easter and holidays. By that time, you can’t say you’re a Christian or a Muslim. You have to play a series of music. People were always interested in hearing different kinds of music. From there, you feel like ‘I want to learn how to play percussion’ because with percussion you can play for people to dance without any other instrument.
Also, there are traditional musicians like I.K. Dairo and in America there was James Brown, Brook Benton, Jim Reeves. Those are people whose records were so common and so popular in Nigeria then. I had to think that I had no other world than the world of music. That was what led me to become a musician.
PSF: What kind of things changed from you from being a band member to being a band leader?
Actually what I did when I was with the group before, I got myself together with some of the people in the band- some of the people are still with me in my group. We more or less followed in the steps of the previous band and people like I.K. Dairo. We were copy cats until we were trying to find our own way. The first thing I did at that time was change the tuning of my guitar, from the normal chord to open chord. I had to find my own name in different music. From there, we put in more percussion to our own kind of groups. The way I sing, I believe that it’s quite different from other musicians. So that is how we started.
Now when we started playing, they said ‘what music is this?’ We say ‘Sunny Ade and his Green Spot Band.’ ‘Oh, it’s nice, can I hear more?’ That’s how we came up with what we do.
PSF: You were talking about your family before- you have a very religious background. Your father was a minister and you attended religious school. Did that have an effect on your work?
I think so when I sit down and I think about it, how things happens. But you know how your father doesn’t want you to do what you’re doing, doesn’t want to you come close to music or become a musician. Then you really don’t have the feeling for that and you can’t say ‘oh, my father is the one who really encouraged me to do this.’ None of my family wanted it. But being from the blood of a man who plays the organ and a family who knows about music, it’s a heritage. So I believe so in some parts but in other parts, I am a rebel to the family. They don’t want me to play music at all and I’m not supposed to play music. But I just don’t know I can do. But I believe in playing music.
When you’re doing things you want to do and doing unusual things, you’re going to be having problems from the family, problems from the group, problems from the public. You want them to believe in what you do, you want to get the members together to keep them. So when you have a family that can’t give you support, it’s a serious bad experience for me. But I don’t regret it.
PSF: Highlife was the popular style when you started playing music. How do see that as being simliar or different from the juju music that you’ve been playing with your band?
I would say that highlife and juju music are more or less like friends or cousins. In my kind of music, I make sure all kinds of music are in there. Any kind of music in the world, you can find in my music. It’s just that I sat down to create and when you hear it, no matter what kind of music you can think about, you will still have the feelings within that band. Really, the aim is to send this particular music to the whole world and let everybody have that feeling. So that if you’re a fanatic fan of jazz, it’s within this music. If you’re a fanatic fan of rock and roll or R&B, you’ll find that in my music.
But the music is very unique. When I’m playing it, I feel happy. When people hear it, you’ll see them dancing. That’s why a lot of people prefer to dance, dance, dance, dance always. It’s like non-stop. (laughs). I really like the music myself and believe that (other) people do too.
PSF: Something unique about your band is that you have ‘non-traditional’ instruments in there like vibraphones, steel guitars and synthesizers. Do you feel as like you’re expanding what’s considered Nigerian music.
No. What I do is… before I put in anything or add anything, I will go back and do research- ‘what kind of instrument sounds like this?’ I am not the first to do this. When I look back, they had different kind of guitars (goje) which they introduced into the music. They had to have a development in it where they introduced guitar. When I introduced vibraphone and xylophone, it was like instruments in the olden days. But you can’t get the original (instruments) unless you go a LONG way or you go to those people who’ve made it for a long time. Then when you get it, it’s too delicate to carry about.
What I do is to find an instrument to sound exactly like that, then I introduce it into the music. When you talk about the pedal steel, it’s more or less like an African violin. That’s how it sounds like. We introduced that kind of violin before. By the time I heard Jim Reeves and other country music, then I said ‘it sounds alike so why don’t we just have the sound electrified instead of patching the whole thing together?’ So in as much as we can get that tune from pedal steel, that’s how we do it.
Then we introduced bass. A bass guitar is more or less like a thumb piano from the old days, in a box with some metal on top. A bass can play that so what’s the use of carry the boxes all around? On the keyboards, my sisters introduced accordian into it, which is almost what I can get from other keyboards over here.
So it’s not that I intentionally introduced anything. Whenever I introduce an instrument into the music, the people at home will even do their own research. When they ask me, we are going to meet on the crossroad and we have almost the same thought. I don’t know any other musicians doing that but that’s what I do. I’ve never been given a slap on the face for that for damaging the image of juju music.
PSF: When you did international tours in the ’70’s and the ’80’s and got recognition around the world, did that change your work?
I believe that most of the people used to come to Nigeria, hearing the music and hearing the records, wanted to have more but there’s no room for them to have more. Luckily for us, there was a manager who came to Nigeria and said ‘oh, this music is here? Why can’t we try that? Let’s go.’ So the moment that we went into Europe, the whole thing just blew up just like that. We really tried to be careful that we don’t deviate from that music. Or else, I know for sure now that if my music will change for the people to have it here then when we go back home, there wouldn’t be anything like that again. So I was very, very careful to give you music here but they would accept it way back home.
PSF: What did you think of Fela Kuti, another famous Nigerian music?
Fela Kuti is a legion onto his own. A master of his music. Also, a good friend of mine, including his family. I don’t know why he choses me to be one of his best friends among other musicians. He used to come to my house. But he is the kind of musician who has a political ambition on his mind which he used for his music. But that is the only area where we don’t cross paths- he is a politician and I am not a politician. But we are good friends.
PSF: Do you find that you also get along well with other Nigerian musicians?
With other musicians, I am also friends with them. I am the first President of Nigerian Musicians way back in ’82. Up to this moment, I am sitting as Chairmen of the Advisory Council. Currently, I am the chairmen of the Musical Co-operative Society of Nigeria. I am the Patron of the Juju Bandleaders’ Association. I believe that we are always working towards the progress of the music.
PSF: What kind of major changes have you seen in Nigerian music in the last ten or twenty years?
Well, I would say that when my music was accepted over here, I was more or less seen like a pioneer. So people were coming into Africa and Nigeria to make sure that this music was being exported to the Western world and to Europe and every other part. That’s part of the changes.
People travel all over the world with their kind of music to feel other parts of the world and to come back home. Every day, music is springing up and musicians are springing up in different parts of the world. People who come into Nigeria looking for music will get more than enough because nearly every home or town has people playing a different type of traditional music. We have more than 300,000 different (types of) music in Nigeria. It depends on the type of music you want and if a recording company can bring them out. It’s like having a sugar to a coffee or a tea.
PSF: A relatively recent development in Nigerian music is something called Fuji. What do you think of this type of music?
Fuji music is more or less like my music without guitars. It’s like that. It’s like I’m singing in a major (key) and they are singing in a minor. For all their lyrics, they have to chose them to go along with minor. The music itself is the music of juju music.
PSF: What kinds of future plans and goals do you have?
First of all, I have the King Sunny Ade foundation, which is has been established in Nigeria. I believe that I can hook the whole world together with this foundation, helping under-priveleged people and helping them get work. We have a school of music and a school of drama. That is my aim of what I’m going to do. As it is, we’re sending our music around the whole world. I believe that I am one of the pioneers and I know that for any other music coming after me, it is going to be easier for them to penetrate (the market) because as you are talking to me, you are aware of where my music comes from and who is me. You can quickly say ‘oh, this is African music. This music comes from Nigeria. This music comes from Ghana. This music comes from Mali.’ It’s a great thing.
PSF: You were saying before that you wanted to stay out clear of politics but what do you think of the political situation in your own country now?
As it is now, Nigeria is in a line of hope. When you look at the sitation now, we have hope. Before, we are hopeless. Now, we have hope and I pray that tomorrow there will be a new Nigeria in politics, in attitude, in everything. That’s my belief.
PSF: You were talking about how music effects people differently. Do you see that when you play music for people at home in Nigeria that music has more or less of an effect on them than when you play in Europe, Asia or the States?
I would say that music is like an injection, straight to the blood. The moment you hear the music, the music can heal you. If you’re suffering from a fever or malaria and you hear the music, you’ll be dancing all over and you’ll sweat and you won’t even remember that you’re sick. It’s just like that. Everybody has this in their blood. When you play the music, it goes from your ears to the body. By the time you realize where you are, then you say ‘what is this? Am I crazy?’ But within a second, you’ll jump up again and feel good. You listen to music, then your mind will go far away, even to heaven where you can discuss with the holy angels of God. That’s why they say that music is the soul of life. It is the same thing all over the world. I can judge where ever we play, from the moment that the band starts.
I remember the time we went to Japan in 1985. I was thinking that when I get to the stage, I have to play three minutes and have to explain to people what the music is sounding like. But before two minutes, the whole stadium was on our their feet, jumping up and enjoying themselves. You will see the same thing when I play here tonight. It’s the same all over, everywhere you go. Music is in the blood. When you play good music, you transfer it to other people. The moment that you get the music and it stays with you and your mind, you see an invisible injection straight to your blood. That’s why they say music can heal, which I believe. When you listen, you will forget that you’re suffering from pain. The moment that the pain goes off, it doesn’t come back. That’s my belief.
PSF: What do you look at as major achievements in your career? What are you most proud of?
I’m proud to see my people everywhere I go, loving me. So I’m happy about that. Anywhere I play is more or less the same reaction I get at home is the same reaction I get everywhere I go. That is a lot of achievement. In the music too, when you are talking about King Sunny Ade, it is no more a name that people will say ‘oh, come again?’ It has an effect on other music too. They will ask ‘where did this music come from? Oh, it came from where King Sunny comes from.’ So eventually, it’s like a signpost for other music.
PSF: So you think that you’ve become part of a tradition?
I’m a traditionalist, by profession! (laughs)