King Sunny Adé: Juju Music

African music has been part of America’s cultural DNA since roughly 1619. But in 1982—the year Michael Jackson’s seismic “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” interpolated “Soul Makossa,” the unlikely 1972 global hit by Cameroon’s Manu Dibango—actual African music LPs were thin on U.S. ground. Cratediggers might’ve found the Soul Makossa LP, or albums by South African cultural emissaries Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela; perhaps they lucked upon Fela Kuti’s magnificently excoriating Zombie, issued by Mercury in 1977 in a failed attempt to break the artist stateside. Otherwise, the sounds on offer were less pop than ethnographic: field recordings on the Folkways and Nonesuch Explorer labels, or the handsome one-off Missa Luba LP, an independence-era snapshot of a Congolese boys choir that became a favorite among ’60s hi-fi aficionados—as did Babatunde Olatunji’s Drums of Passion, the percussion-driven firestorm that functioned as a home-study course for the Velvet Underground’s Moe Tucker, who played along to it in her suburban Long Island bedroom.

This was the backdrop—pre-internet, pre-Graceland—for King Sunny Adé’s Juju Music, a masterpiece of sublime dance music and chill-out grooves that rang the opening bell for the fruitful-if-problematic “world music” marketplace, with Adé leading a vanguard of artists who would introduce a wealth of new sounds and conversations into the American pop biosphere. Juju Music was even a relative commercial success, spending 29 weeks in the bottom half of the Billboard 200, remarkable for a record sung mainly in Yorùbá. Its creative triumph was self-evident: a radiant vortex of melodic ouroboros rhythms, dubby yet dazzling, its gentle flow so irresistible that the chiming first chords of “Ja Funmi,” the dance-trigger lead track, remains for many a musculoskeletal call-to-prayer—what, say, the paired four-note opening of “Dark Star” is for Deadheads.

West African highlife, soukous, Afrobeat, and jùjú were hardly news to local fans, expat communities, or anyone else with access to the music. (Tastemaking British DJ John Peel shopped for African LPs at Stern’s, London’s legendary music import shop, and began playing Adé’s records on his BBC Radio 1 show in the ’70s.) These styles were ongoing dialogues with the (African) American music marketed in Africa, be it rock, blues, jazz, R&B, or country, so the echoes were no accident. Sunday Adeniyi Adegeye, the son of a church organist who left high school to earn money as a drummer, was an avid listener of U.S. soul and country who started his first group, the Green Spot Band, at age 20 in 1966. Like many artists at the time, he took up the electric guitar, and by the mid-’70s, he was self-releasing modern jùjú records on his own Sunny Alade label and distributing them with Decca. When he signed with Island, he was already a wealthy, established Nigerian bandleader, with a mature fanbase buoyed by the country’s oil boom and an elegant, cosmopolitan style—a Yorùbá Philly Soul to the roughneck Afrobeat James Brown of his countryman, Fela. The sound seemed a perfect candidate for export.

Measured against Island’s ambitions, Juju Music was perhaps a letdown. Having turned reggae in general, and Bob Marley in particular, into global commodities, the label assumed they might do the same with the brilliant pop styles of a whole continent. In fact, Marley money got things started: When producer Martin Meissonier sought funding to record Juju Music, Island sent him to CBS Nigeria to collect royalties from Marley’s recordings. (Legend has it that he was presented with bags of cash.)

Island tested Anglo-American waters in 1981 with Sound D’Afrique, a well-curated compilation of motherland gems released on its subsidiary label Mango, usually home to Jamaican and Caribbean releases. With tracks by Senegal’s Étoile de Dakar (fronted by soon-to-be global star Youssou N’Dour) and Congolese guitar hero Pablo Lubadika Porthos, but no liner notes or photos, the LP didn’t register widely. Still, its cascading guitar lines, chortling horns, and polyrhythmic beat webs—which brightened further on 1982’s follow-up Sound D’Afrique II—were revelatory for many newcomers. DJs at my upstate New York college radio station were immediate converts; the spiraling leads and stop-motion arpeggios were guitar-fiend lingua franca, however removed they were from the blues roots of American funk and rock.

Where the Sound D’Afrique material was cherry-picked for English and American audiences from tracks recorded for the African market, Juju Music was tailored differently. Island had experience retooling regional sounds: The original Wailers recordings produced in Jamaica by Lee “Scratch” Perry (“Small Axe,” “Kaya”) were the aesthetic gold standard, but it was the polished remakes that made Marley an international superstar. Juju Music adopted the playbook used for Catch a Fire, the Wailers’ Island debut: Adé recorded at the well-appointed Studio de la Nouvelle Marche, aka Otodi Studio, in Lomé, Togo, and an Island engineer remixed the tracks in London.

The outcome is a subtle shift in Adé’s sound: tighter, brighter, lusher, and more detailed. His Nigerian releases extend songs to fill entire LP sides, or segue them into long medleys. King Sunny Adé G.M.A., a self-released 1980 set on his Sunny Alade label, presented the original “Ja Funmi” (titled “Ori Mi Ja Fun Mi”) as an 18-minute suite. But at the request of Island’s Chris Blackwell, Juju Music featured individuated tracks, fresh recordings of catalog songs ranging from three to eight minutes long. Tempos were scooched up slightly, mixes more layered and filigreed, while dub effects (by reggae vet Godwin Logie) added extra buoyancy and stoner ambiance.

The change is most noticeable in the beat mix, particularly the Yorùbá talking drums, the heartbeat of jùjú. Where the pitch-shifting instruments pop like firecrackers on King Sunny Adé G.M.A., they’re often dialed back on Juju Music into a more uniform, near-ambient swarm. Jùjú traditionalists already felt that Adé was cluttering up the music with too many elements, and Juju Music—recorded with his ’80s band, the 20-plus-member-strong African Beats—pushed that effect to the hilt: six electric guitars, counting steel and bass; keyboards; and a battery of percussionists and singers. The album splits the difference between clubbing and couch-lock, honoring in its way the cool urban spirit of jùjú, a decades-old style rooted as much in listening music (the acoustic barroom “palm-wine” style of the 1920s) as in drum-driven dance parties.

Another Westernized touch is the spotlight on steel guitarist Demola Adepoju, who gets nearly a minute of soloing on “Ja Funmi,” a display missing from the earlier Nigerian version, which keeps his phrases pithier and gives more room to grouped Yorùbá vocals. Adepoju’s silvery skywriting is an invitation for rock and funk fans to hear electric guitar playing in a different way: more as a weave than as strictly demarcated rhythm and leads.

The vocals function in a similarly textural way, at least for non-Yorùbá speakers, with Adé’s buttery tenor triangulating Curtis Mayfield, Brook Benton, and country crooner Jim Reeves (the latter hugely popular in Nigeria) as he unspools fluid call-and-responses with a half-dozen co-vocalists. Perhaps unsurprisingly for music born in the massive port city of a former British colony, the sound is tinged by the swell of Anglican church choirs, as well as the keen of Koranic recitation. Jùjú was melting-pot music from the get-go (the out-of-print 1985 LP Juju Roots 1930s-1950s is a great primer) which mutated just like blues and old-time American music did when electric guitars landed. But it also became music that expressed Yorùbá identity—its very name adopted, by some etymologies, from a disparaging Western term for traditional African religion (others trace the name to a phonaesthetic word for a characteristic beat).

All this made jùjú, like reggae, a supremely inviting export with myriad cross-cultural access points. Juju Music is an object lesson in fusion, beginning with the mellow, churchy uplift of “Ja Funmi,” its unfurling steel-solo phrases bursting through drum layers near the five-minute mark like sun through clouds. The melody has a flicker of American country music; steel guitar struck Adé as a novel way to echo the traditional licks of African fiddle. On “Eje Nlo Gba Ara Mi,” the steel is like the ornamentation of a Kehinde Wiley portrait, both filigree and melody, trading off with the synthesizer. A similar dynamic propels “Sunny Ti De Ariya,” a talking drum workout with a “What’s Going On”-style backdrop of chattering musicians. On “Ma Jaiye Oni,” which gets a distinct tempo boost from the Nigerian version, steel takes…

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