A lone singer stood on the stage last night and cried, "Son-nee-oh!" A crowd of voices behind the black curtain echoed him. He cried, "Ah-day-oh!" Again the echo. There was an explosion of drums and suddenly the Wax Museum stage was full of 17 Nigerian men in colorful printed dashikis undulating to the waves of overlapping rhythms from trap drums, talking drums, congas, gourds, cowbells, electric bass and four rhythm guitars. King Sunny Ade & his African Beats had arrived for their first show in America.
Ade, a pop superstar at home in Nigeria, chopped out chords on his Fender guitar and turned distinctively African dance steps on the heels of his black cowboy boots. He led the four other singers in simple choral chants and call-and-response patterns. If the vocals and melodies were simple, the rhythms were incredibly complex. There seemed to be a different rhythmic accent for each part of the body, certainly for the four singers who contributed one dazzling dance solo after another.
Island Records, which is sponsoring Ade's first American tour and record, hopes he will popularize Nigeria's juju music here, just as Bob Marley once popularized Jamaica's reggae. The fact that Ade sings in his native tongue and not at all in English is one strike against this hope. That his band plays ongoing music more than it plays distinguishable songs is a second strike. Ade is bound, however, to have a marked impact on Western musicians, who may soon be experimenting with polyrhythms, talking drums and psychedelic pedal steel guitar.