Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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King Sunny Ade and His African Beats

  • Juju Music [Mango, 1982] A-
  • Ajoo [Makossa, 1983] A-
  • Synchro System [Mango, 1983] A-
  • Aura [Island, 1984] A
  • Live Live Juju [Rykodisc, 1988] B-

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Juju Music [Mango, 1982]
The Message, the unavailable-in-the-U.S. Nigerian LP that precedes this made-for-export overview conceptually, actually comes closer to pop--it's brighter, edgier, more tuneful. The music here is all flowing undulation; even the experimental synthesizer interjections, while recalling the startling syn-drums of great disco, seem somehow rubberized, springing suddenly outward and then receding back into the slipstream. It's almost as if Chris Blackwell, aware that it was absurd to think AOR, aimed instead for a kind of ambient folk music that would unite amateur ethnologists, Byrne-Eno new-wavers, reggae fans, and hip dentists, just for starters. But never fear--not only do these confident, magical, surpassingly gentle polyrhythms obviate the organic and the electronic, the local and universal, they also make hash of distinctions between background and foreground. I can imagine somebody not loving Sunny Adé; I can't imagine somebody disliking him. A-

Ajoo [Makossa, 1983]
Since his import-if-you-can-find-it The Message is still my favorite Adé, not to mention my first, I thought it wise to check out the five LPs Adé released in Nigeria between Mango albums. They sounded pretty good, but since "universal language" is as parochial a concept as any other one-world idealism, I wasn't too surprised to discover limits to my appetite for a conservative, consciously recycled music I half understand. Makossa, a Brooklyn label which has manufactured and distributed African records since 1967, has now released this Nigerian Adé in a cleaner, brighter pressing. I know several neoconnnoisseurs who consider Ajoo his best since the first Nigerian Adé they heard, Check "E"; I'd say second-best since The Message (the first shipment of which arrived in the States warped) because I prefer Bobby, featuring an elegiacally lyrical side called "Late Olabinjo Benson." One indication of Ajoo's quality is that Adé recut "Ewele" and "Tolongo" (as well as Maa Jo's title tune) for Synchro System, but that's not necessarily a consumer plus. "Gbeyogbeyo," however, would make Vangelis turn green if he weren't so badly discolored already. A-

Synchro System [Mango, 1983]
Top-billed keyboard player Martin Meissonnier has definite ideas about how to produce his client for the non-African market. By emphasizing discrete melodies and heating up the mix, he variegates Adé's flow, which is how art works in the U.S.A. Since the impact of overviews like Juju Music is unrepeatable, the switch came none too soon. This more conventionally unified album may not seem quite as arresting as the debut, but that's mainly because it arrived second. There's no clearer way to hear the talking drums and choral singing that make juju music what it is. A-

Aura [Island, 1984]
Three albums into this world-class popmeister's American career, his U.S. debut begins to seem like the compromise purists claimed it was--not because it's too American, but because it's not American enough. Now when I want something subtly polypercussive I'll choose one of his Nigerian LPs rather than Juju Music. And when I want a heavier, hookier groove I'll pull out Synchro System--or more likely, this one. With Martin Meissonnier back behind the glass and Stevie Wonder's earthbound harmonica on native ground, it's every bit as consistent as The Message and--by (Afro-) American standards--considerably more propulsive. At times it's even obvious, regular. Next time I assume they'll go all out for a dance-chart hit. And I can't wait to hear it. A

Live Live Juju [Rykodisc, 1988]
Like so many live albums, it promises the real deal and then reduces an event that once engaged five or more senses to an aural abstraction. Worse, the percussive bias of both recording method and performance concept undercuts the momentum of the ensemble groove. Ruined by the Fallacy of the Drum Solo, in quadruplicate. B-