A Youtube audio of his Juju Classic "Ja Funmi" (Fight for me) you can listen to as you read:
Biography: King Sunny Adé is the standard bearer for the Nigerian music form known as "juju". While juju music predates him and has its origins in traditional Yoruba drum chants, he certainly developed it into what it is today, with its richly textured instrumentation and significant Western influences. He is especially notable for introducing the pedal steel guitar, accordion and synthesizer to juju, giving the style a much more modern sound.
The most popular musician in Nigeria from the late sixties through the eighties, Adé was signed to a major international contract by Island Records in the early eighties, when they hoped to replace the commercial success they lost with the death of Bob Marley. He released three excellent records on this contract, but Island dropped him after sales of the third were disappointing and he refused to sing more of his songs in English and cater to a more western audience. Despite this, the exposure he earned through these albums made him well known around the world, and opened the door for a legion of African musicians who later became international stars, such as Fela Kuti, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Youssou N' Dour and others.
The commercial success of these albums enabled Adé to start several companies and foundations in Nigeria, seeking to improve life there and promote music. Throughout this time, he has continued to record and tour, and now has released well over 100 albums.
The "King" refers to the fact that Adé hails from a royal family. His father was a minister, and while juju is not a religious music, religious themes do enter his music from time to time.
Here's an excerpt from a 1998 interview in which Adé describes how he decided to add the sounds and instruments to juju that he did:
PSF: Something unique about your band is that you have 'non-traditional' instruments in there like vibraphones, steel guitars and synthesizers. Do you feel as like you're expanding what's considered Nigerian music.
KSA: No. What I do is... before I put in anything or add anything, I will go back and do research- 'what kind of instrument sounds like this?' I am not the first to do this. When I look back, they had different kind of guitars (goje) which they introduced into the music. They had to have a development in it where they introduced guitar. When I introduced vibraphone and xylophone, it was like instruments in the olden days. But you can't get the original (instruments) unless you go a LONG way or you go to those people who've made it for a long time. Then when you get it, it's too delicate to carry about.
What I do is to find an instrument to sound exactly like that, then I introduce it into the music. When you talk about the pedal steel, it's more or less like an African violin. That's how it sounds like. We introduced that kind of violin before. By the time I heard Jim Reeves and other country music, then I said 'it sounds alike so why don't we just have the sound electrified instead of patching the whole thing together?' So in as much as we can get that tune from pedal steel, that's how we do it.
Then we introduced bass. A bass guitar is more or less like a thumb piano from the old days, in a box with some metal on top. A bass can play that so what's the use of carry the boxes all around? On the keyboards, my sisters introduced accordian into it, which is almost what I can get from other keyboards over here.
So it's not that I intentionally introduced anything. Whenever I introduce an instrument into the music, the people at home will even do their own research. When they ask me, we are going to meet on the crossroad and we have almost the same thought. I don't know any other musicians doing that but that's what I do. I've never been given a slap on the face for that for damaging the image of juju music.
Juju Music (1982) - The King's first album for Island's Mango imprint, it's also the best known, and the one that features the song "Ja Funmi" from the Youtube posted above. For many Americans in the early 80s, this album, heavily promoted by Island as introducing the "African Bob Marley", was the first African music they heard. Sparse and dense at the same time, the music is at times characterized by or ensembles of bongos and talking drums, at others sweet vocal harmonies, and frequently features layered guitar grooves with percussion pushing the jams forward and Yoruba vocal exhortations on top. A beautiful album, and in my opinion the best place to start. Don't miss the track "365 Is My Number / The Message".
Syncro System (1983) - Powerful, and fairly similar to its predecessor. The biggest differences are that there is more excellent keyboard work, and somewhat less pedal steel, a disappointment since Ademola Adepoju's steel guitar work is one of the best things about Juju Music. Still a solid album, though. Check out "Maajo" and the extended percussion solo after it.
Aura (1984) - This is my favorite, and if you can get past the 80s production values, it will be yours, too. The clavinet work is phenomenal, Fela's drummer Tony Allen lays down some soulful beats, and none other than Stevie Wonder contributes some harmonica work to the blistering opening track. And the talking drums are at least as good on this as they are on any of his other releases that I've heard.
Live! Live Juju! (2005) - This is King Sunny Ade the way he was meant to be heard -- live. On the heels of the three Island albums but without the restrictive studio environment, this album captures the African Beats in Seattle shortly after he was dropped by Island records. Highlights are the opening medley and the live version of "Ase". If you want to get something that will be similar to what we'll hear at Bonnaroo, this is probably the best way to go.
Sounds Like: Ben Ratliff describes Sunny Ade's initial impact in America thus, in a 2000 NYT article: Back then, to fresh ears, Mr. Ade's juju music was a wild miscellany: it had echoes of old reggae in its lean guitar riffs, salsa in its Yoruban drum patterns, country in the steel-guitar playing, dub in the music's wide-open holes, folk and calypso in its gentle singing and the Grateful Dead and jazz in its long jams.
I can't do too much better than that, but I'll add to it by mentioning the importance of the vocal harmonies and textured guitar jams to the sound. But check out the albums above and Youtubes below.
Similar Artists: Ebenezer Obey, Shina Peters, and also not too far from the township jive found on some Hugh Masekela and Ladysmith Black Mambazo albums. His layered guitar work had a major impact on the mid-70s albums of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti.
Similar Bonnaroo Artists: I guess the closest would be King Sunny's countryman Femi Kuti. Also, King Sunny Ade is a huge influence on Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, who once said, "If you must come to see Sunny Adé live, you must be prepared to groove all night". In this case, you'll be grooving from 5:15 - 6:30, but stick around and groove to Amadou and Mariam afterward.
Unfortunately, none of these are great quality, but they're still worth checking out:
I love the groove on this video. Unfortunately, there's not really any information on it:
Here's "Africa and America", from the Harmony Music Festival in 1998. This song also appears on the album Live! Live Juju!.
Another performance from the same festival, "Ja Lo Lo Ja Lo Lo":
Here's a recent video of a song from his Grace of God album.
Physical Reaction/Live Show: This will be pretty mellow and laid-back, but you still won't be able to stand still. The music is infectious, and it's supported by a driving percussion that the Youtube's above don't properly capture. There will probably be two drummers with kits, two guys playing bongos and other percussion, two guys playing talking drums. So a total of six percussionists commanding your booty to shake. In addition, there will be several harmony singers/dancers up front, a number of guitarists including a pedal steel, a keyboard player, a bassist, and King Sunny Ade with lead guitar and vocals. Probably more than fifteen people in all. It's a party!
Personal Notes Seeing his name on the lineup announcement made me jump up and down, literally. I have been wanting to see him for more than a decade and in a few short weeks I finally will. At 62, he's not quite on death's door, but when he tours America he plays in relatively few cities so it will be difficult to get the chance to see him again. He is such a musical pioneer, and his music is all about his live show. You'll get many more opportunities to see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Grizzly Bear and Santigold. Go see King Sunny!
A Thieve's Parade 2/24 Conspirator 2/26 Kevin Smith 3/11 Keller 3/17 Papadosio 3/18 JJ Grey 3/25 Bela Fleck/Edgar Meyer 3/26 Toubab Krewe 3/27 O'Death 4/11 Budos Band 4/22 EOTO 4/28 Summer Camp 5/6-29 All Good