As hip, hyped music fads go, the current promotion of African pop is one that will at least prove enriching. The movement has been spearheaded by the release of King Sunny Ade's first American LP (he's had 40 releases back home in Nigeria) and his subsequent nationwide tour.
A scholarly appreciation of contemporary African music would no doubt mention the importance of tribal social structures and religious ritual to its unique development. A technical approach would focus on its modal, non-linear format and polyrhythmic emphases. All the novice need know is that it's immensely enjoyable -- utterly alien yet immediately accessible.
Traditional African music provided the rhythmic core and cathartic canon of rural American blues and, consequently, of gospel, jazz, r&b and rock'n'roll. Through those genres, its influence has spread to practically every form of Anglo-American pop. In turn, African popular music has drawn heavily, but selectively, from these same styles, fusing them with native folk sounds. The result is a variety of striking hybrids.
King Sunny Ade and his African Beats call their U.S. debut album "Juju Music" after the pop genre dominant in Nigeria.Originally, back in the '20s and '30s, "juju" was a disparaging term used by colonial administrators to describe anything with connections to the indigenous black culture. Somehow it became connected with the percussive, secular music played at village social functions. When guitars were introduced to the drum-oriented lineup in the mid-'30s, the resulting style was dubbed "juju" as a gesture of defiance.
Today's "juju," as performed by Ade and company, is built on the complex, spontaneous interaction of four guitars, a pedal steel, bass and more than half a dozen percussionists. While congas, bongos and talking drums set up a hypnotic drone of multiple cross-rhythms, the guitars glide through a series of improvisations, harmonies, counterpoint and abrupt exclamations.
"Ja Funmi" and "Eje Nlo Gba Ara Mi" kick of "Juju Music" at a high-spirited gallop. Sparkling, clear-eyed guitar interplay and fast-paced drumming back up bright, boisterous chants. The next two cuts are primarily percussion workouts flavored by more chanting and featuring some deadly effective synthesizer. On "Sunny Ti De Ariya," Ade and Martin Meissonnier create eerie, whirling tones that evoke the spirits that these drums were, according to legend, supposed to conjure up -- a neat adaptation of Western technique to African ends.
Elsewhere, there's more of the African Beats' blend of lilting, calypso-tinged melodies, traditional drum stylings, jazzy improvisation and just enough funk bottom to make this prime dance-floor fodder. When the current fad fades, expect this album to continue delivering solid listening pleasure.
For those interested in learning more about the history of African pop, a number of recordings have recently been made available domestically. Mango, Ade's American label, has two volumes of a sampler series called "Sound d'Afrique." One-time Village Voice contributor John Storm Roberts recently re-released his "Africa Dances" (Authentic OMA 601) album and put out a new collection called "The Nairobi Sound" (Original OMA 101), which concentrates on Kenyan guitar music of the '60s and '70s and points to the roots of some of what Ade is doing today.
A more contemporary, if somewhat diluted sampling is provided by PVC's "Music and Rhythm" (PVC 201), a two-record set issued to raise funds for the staging of the "World of Music, Arts and Dance" festival in Great Britain last summer and, at the same time, acquaint festival-goers with the music. Cuts by such acts as Prince Nico Mbarga alternate with sympathetic contributions by a panoply of progressive English pop stars headed by Peter Gabriel. The final effect is thoroughly entertaining and quite revealing, demonstrating not only the heavy debt European progressive music owes to African sources, but how much more powerful a lot of these elements sound in the original. ON RECORD, ON STAGE THE ALBUM
KING SUNNY ADE -- JuJu Music (Mango, MLPS 9712). THE SHOW
KING SUNNY ADE & THE AFRICAN BEATS, Tuesday at 9 at The Wax Museum.