The Life History of Legendary Music Icon King Sunny Ade
The Life History of Legendary Music Icon King Sunny Ade
Adé was born to a Nigerian royal family in Ondo, thus making him an Omoba of the Yoruba people. His father was a church organist, while his mother was a trader. Adé left grammar school in Ondo under the pretense of going to the University of Lagos. There, in Lagos, his mercurial musical career started.
Sunny Adé’s musical sound has evolved from the early days. His career began with Moses Olaiya’s Federal Rhythm Dandies, a highlife band. He left to form a new band, The Green Spots, in 1967. Over the years, for various reasons ranging from changes in his music to business concerns, Sunny Adé’s band changed its name several times, first to African Beats and then to Golden Mercury.
In the 1970s and 1980s Adé embarked on a tour of America and Europe. His stage act was characterised by dexterous dancing steps and mastery of the guitar.
After more than a decade of resounding success in his native Nigeria, Adé was received to great acclaim in Europe and North America in 1982. The global release of Juju Music and its accompanying tour was “almost unanimously embraced by critics (if not consumers) everywhere”. Adé was described in The New York Times’ as “one of the world’s great band leaders”, in Record as “a breath of fresh air, a positive vibration we will feel for some time to come” and in Trouser Press as “one of the most captivating and important musical artists anywhere in the world”.
His next album, Syncro System (1983), was equally successful and earned him his first Grammy Award nomination in the folk/ethnic music category
A Fusion of Sounds
Sunny Adé’s music is characterised by, among other instruments, the talking drum – an instrument indigenous to his Yoruba roots, the guitar and his peculiar application to jùjú music, that would easily put him in the same class as guitar musicians like Santana. His music is in the age-old tradition of singing poetic lyrics (“ewi” in Yoruba) and praise of dignitaries as well components of Juju (traditional African belief) called the Ogede (casting a spell). Hence, Adé’s music constitutes a record of the oral tradition of his people for posterity.
Sunny Adé introduced the pedal steel guitar to Nigerian pop music. He introduced the use of synthesizers, clavinet, vibraphone, tenor guitar into the jùjú music repertoire such as dub and wah-wah guitar licks. Adé said he used these instruments not as an attempt to innovate, but as a substitute for traditional jùjú instruments which were too difficult to find and/or impractical for touring. The pedal steel guitar, for instance, was added to his repertoire as a sound-alike for an African violin.
After the death of Bob Marley, Island Records began looking for another third world artist to put on its contract, while Fela Kuti had just been signed by Arista Records. Producer Martin Meissonnier introduced King Sunny Adé to Chris Blackwell, leading to the release of Juju Music in 1982. Robert Palmer claims to have brought King Sunny Adé to Island’s attention, his familiarity being from his life on Malta in the 60s listening to African Radio and Armed Forces Radio. Adé gained a wide following with this album and was soon billed as “the African Bob Marley”.
Sunny Adé has said that his refusal to allow Island to meddle with his compositions and over-Europeanise and Americanise his music were the reasons why Island then decided to look elsewhere.
Sunny has collaborated with major artists such as Manu Dibango (Wakafrika) and Stevie Wonder (played harmonica in Aura), as well as younger Nigerian artists such as Wasiu Alabi Pasuma and Bola Abimbola.
Sunny Adé’s brief recordings with Island Records opened the floodgates for other world music artists like Senegalese Youssou N’Dour, Mali’s Salif Keita and many others.
In 1987, Sunny Adé returned to the international spotlight when Rykodisc released a live concert he did in Seattle and was given an astonishing embrace by fans across the globe who were eager for another international album release.
He soon employed an American manager, Andrew Frankel, who negotiated another three album record deal with the Mesa record label (a division of Paradise Group) in America. One of these albums was 1988’s Odu, a collection of traditional Yoruba songs, for which he was nominated for the second Grammy Award and thus making him the first African to be nominated twice for a Grammy. Apart from being an international musician Sunny Adé is also prominent in his native Nigeria, running multiple companies in several industries, creating a non-profit organisation called the King Sunny Adé Foundation, and working with the Musical Copyright Society of Nigeria.
In recent times, hip hop music appears to be holding sway with the electronic media in Nigeria with massive airplays. Nonetheless, Sunny Adé’s musical output has continued to inspire a vast generation of other Nigerian musicians, who believe in the big band musical set up which Sunny Adé and late Fela Kuti are noted for. The musician Lagbaja is one of the very many musicians whom Sunny Adé’s music has inspired. In 2008, his contributions to world music was recognised; as he was given an award for his outstanding contribution to world music at the International Reggae and World Music Awards held at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York.
In the 1980s Adé embarked on a career in Hollywood. His music was featured in the 1983 film Breathless, starring Richard Gere, and the 1986 comedy One More Saturday Night, and he acted in Robert Altman’s 1987 comedy O.C. and Stiggs.
At the beginning of another round of tour of the United States and Canada, Sunny Adé, now known as The Chairman in his home country, was appointed a visiting professor of music at the Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife. In July the same year King Sunny Adé was inducted into the Afropop Hall of Fame, at the Brooklyn African Festival in the United States. He dedicated the award to the recently deceased Michael Jackson.