Sharps & Flats

King Sunny Ade earns universality not through casual musical tourism but through an effort grounded in turmoil, sadness and bitterness.

Published June 29, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

The complaint about recent Afrobeat is that the artists who play it have made too many compromises with contemporary Western pop; that they've adopted too many synthesizers, too smooth a sound, too sunny a sonic palette and lyrics too concerned with hokey "one world" clichis. We are all Lion Kings now, the music cheerfully -- too cheerfully -- pronounces. Even efforts by greats such as Youssou N'Dour, Baaba Maal and Salif Keita begin to make Paul Simon's "Graceland" seem like a paragon of cultural authenticity.

But authenticity is a funny concept. King Sunny Ade, the Nigerian musician declared the African Bob Marley when he first toured the West in the early 1980s, plays a style known as juju -- a clever, joyous, purposely inauthentic concoction of traditional and Western sounds. On Ade's latest album, "Seven Degrees North," Yoruba proverbs float over updated interpretations of West African highlife music, itself an earlier era's mixing of African and non-African styles; electric guitars shimmy over chromatic African scales then join an organ and electric bass in riffs that could be lifted from a James Brown instrumental track; a synthesized keyboard and talking drums suddenly speak to each other, like a person on a cellular phone somehow miraculously conversing with another on a paper cup-and-string.

Authenticity is not the issue here: The music is pop, through and through. Nor is sophistication: The talking drum is probably more technically complex and difficult to master than the synthesized keyboard. What makes King Sunny Ade's album such a wonderful, uncloying accomplishment is the shock of recognition the music spurs across vast distances and differences of time and space, history and culture. There is room enough in Ade's sound for authentic roots and outstretched branches that extend across oceans.

For instance, amid the shekere and sakara percussion on songs such as "Suku Suku Bam Bam" and "Appreciation" appears the shiny buzz of a pedal steel guitar, a signature instrument of American country music. But rather than sounding incongruous, the instrument's bright, metallic swoops, glissandos and stutters sound like a homecoming -- the return of a wayward, diasporic, transformed blues-cry to its birthplace. "Welcome back!" King Sunny Ade and his band seem to exclaim again and again as their music reaches out to Euro-American country music, African-American blues and funk, European dance groove and Afro-descended Latin American styles such as samba.

But even as Ade and cohorts embrace sounds coming back from far distant shores, they focus "Seven Degrees North" on Nigeria itself. Ade dedicates the album to the Nigerian people's fragile but hopeful return to democracy after years of military dictatorship, and the relaxed, friendly reunion of different styles and sounds suits the dedication perfectly. For the album is nothing if not a musical democracy, a union of discrete styles into an alliance that brings them together without forcing one or the other to dominate.

It's a pop sound, yes, but it's also a sound that manages to be at once fresh and wise, simultaneously energized and patient, equal parts self-conscious and totally at home with itself. Even at their most frenetic and syncopated, Ade and band never rush. They hold back just a bit, as if to enjoy each other's playing in the same instant that they are performing as a group; they listen to each other without each player sacrificing his own contribution.

If the country of Nigeria can come together as the disparate sounds do, as the gently confident voice of Ade and his backup singers and band do, perhaps hope is not too foolish a sentiment to express for this part of the world so fractured by conflict. At the very least -- and it's no small feat -- King Sunny Ade and his African Beats create a capacious music that earns its universality not through casual tourism but through an effort seasoned and grounded in turmoil, sadness and bitterness. Yet, somehow, they still manage to sound celebratory, eager to rediscover, refresh and renew.

By Michael J. Kramer

Michael J. Kramer is an arts and culture writer in Chapel Hill, N.C.

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