Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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King Sunny Ade [extended]

  • The Message [Sunny Alade, 1981] A
  • Juju Music [Mango, 1982] A-
  • Ajoo [Makossa, 1983] A-
  • Synchro System [Mango, 1983] A-
  • Aura [Island, 1984] A
  • The Return of the Juju King [Mercury, 1987] B+
  • Live Live Juju [Rykodisc, 1988] B-
  • Live at the Hollywood Palace [I.R.S., 1994] Neither
  • E Dide (Get Up) [Mesa, 1995] B+
  • Odù [Mesa/Atlantic, 1998] A-
  • Seven Degrees North [V2, 2000] **
  • King of Juju [Wrasse, 2002] A
  • The Best of the Classic Years [Shanachie, 2003] A+
  • Synchro Series [IndigeDisc, 2003] B+
  • Gems From the Classic Years 1967-1974 [Shanachie, 2007] ***

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Message [Sunny Alade, 1981]
All I know about Adé is that he's the (or a) king of Nigerian juju. His voice is gentle, his rhythm insinuating and very poly, his guitar graceful and faintly Hawaiian. Also, he comes up with good hooks--"Ma J'Aiye Oni" was on my interior jukebox for weeks. I play this a lot, and even at that don't think it matches the one with the orange cover that I lost at Charing Cross six weeks ago. When I went back to buy a second copy at Stern's, 126 Tottenham Court Road, London WI, I was told I'd never see it again and advised to plunk down another six quid for this substitute. I'm glad I did, but anyone who knows where I can find the one with the orange cover please advise. A

King Sunny Ade and His African Beats: 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-

King Sunny Ade and His African Beats: 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-

King Sunny Ade and His African Beats: 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-

King Sunny Ade and His African Beats: 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

The Return of the Juju King [Mercury, 1987]
Shortly after he split with Island, Adé also split with the African Beats, which may be why this fifty-five-minute compilation from three recent Nigerian LPs never generates that familiar aura. Could also be the weakness of digital remixers for percussion. Talking drum fans'll love it. B+

King Sunny Ade and His African Beats: 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-

King Sunny Ade and the New African Beats: Live at the Hollywood Palace [I.R.S., 1994] Neither

E Dide (Get Up) [Mesa, 1995]
Can't claim this sustains the promise he had going for him on both sides of the Atlantic in the early '80s--that sense of limitless possibility betrayed by chaos in Nigeria, parochialism in Gaia, and the failure of Aura to move up the charts. But it's possible to applaud his development of Lagos's recording facilities and still be glad he's cut another studio album outside of Africa. A nickel short on both hook and flow, it nevertheless achieves an internationally suitable balance of detonation and quietude--and of voice, percussion, and guitar. B+

Odù [Mesa/Atlantic, 1998]
Ade is no longer a signifier of polyrhythmic African mystery--he's a lesson learned and absorbed. Recorded almost live in a Louisiana studio, this is a convincing statement by an individual titan who dominates juju the way Joseph Shabalala does mbube. Ade's slightly roughened pipes subtract less than Jonah Samuel's piano and organ add to an almost jazzlike synthesis of studio-imposed concision and party-time expandability. And the lyrics are translated and transliterated, situating the music in its culture for anyone who cares. A-

Seven Degrees North [V2, 2000]
"Birthdays are very important/Anyone who witness another year should celebrate" ("Samba," "Congratulations [Happy Birthday]"). **

King of Juju [Wrasse, 2002]
Of the '82-'83-'84 Island LPs that inspired Ade's dreams of international stardom, Juju Music was a fluently constructed ethnopop sampler, Synchro System a fully integrated Martin Meissonnier album. Here both are seamlessly patched together with two Nigeria-only tracks, a Manu Dibango curtain call, and the Stevie Wonder cameo from Ade's final and best Chris Blackwell project, Aura. Better Sunny's synths than Salif Keita's, and he's never made warmer or hotter records--loaded with fun sounds and Lagos themes, deeper on body bass than talky drum. Only those who own the originals on CD should pass up this recapitulation. A

The Best of the Classic Years [Shanachie, 2003]
I wonder if the guys who complained Sunny was one of them media hypes are still listening to their Dream Syndicate albums. Maybe they are, the saps. But two decades on the truth is clearly the opposite--though now slightly diminished, he was a titan, one of the great pop musicians of the 20th century. This first stateside attempt to cherry-pick his vinyl outpouring--Ade himself has compiled CDs for his Masterdisc label--mines 1967-74, well before he crowned himself juju king, and although I own many of his African LPs, I'd never heard a cut on it. It's less tuneful than my old favorite The Message and doesn't flow as smoothly as the '80s stuff Chris Blackwell tried to naturalize into the new reggae. Yet thanks in part to ace compiler Randall Grass, it's magnificent through and through: so polymorphous that themes trade off with variations, so light that its guitars seem barely touched by rock sonorities, so percussive that only Nigerians can dance to it. Sweeping a big, ethnically divided country, juju was one of the headiest pop crazes anywhere ever. It was also mother's milk. A+

Synchro Series [IndigeDisc, 2003]
Two vintage Nigeria-only albums back-to-back, both previously unknown to me: 1982's mild and sweet Gbe Kini Ohun De and 1983's Synchro Feelings, "a medley of remixes of earlier tracks, dub versions and outtakes from the Island [Synchro System] sessions." Not the ideal way to ease peak Ade into the American marketplace. I hope it's surpassed--may I mention Bobby, Ajoo, Check "E," and of course The Message? But the American marketplace being what it is, I wouldn't count on it. B+

Gems From the Classic Years 1967-1974 [Shanachie, 2007]
A few downshifts too thoughtful for the non-Yoruba ("Sunny Spiral [four-song medley]"; "John Ali"). ***