The thin scars on both cheeks are the tribal markings of the Ondo, cut when Sunny Ade' was three months old and healed with herbs and time. In Nigeria, where Ade' is a prince by birthright, he is King Sunny Ade' by popular and professional acclaim, the undisputed Master of Juju Music, the Minister of Enjoyment.
His last time in town, Ade' and his band, the African Beats, set the Wax Museum spinning to the juju pulse for a couple of hours of trance-like dance music. Free of the rigid constrictions of a Western beat, the lilting insistence of the rhythm was all, though the show itself was relatively short. In Nigeria, Ade' and his band often play from dusk to dawn. Nonstop.
"When the music is played out within feelings, it can continue, it can be extended," Ade' said in an interview. "We can play from 8 o'clock at night and close at 6 o'clock in the morning because the people are still enjoying. And we don't repeat ourselves: a percussionist develops a new theme and we just let him go as long as he can keep the people busy dancing and shouting and responding to him."
The morning after, Ade' rested on a less-than-royal armchair in an inexpensive suburban motel. Ade''s troops--with 22 musicians and other assorted supporters, the band is a mini-army--were dispersed in dormitories named after American presidents. That was phase one of the conquest of America, budget-tight and cost-conscious. Tonight, Ade' and the African Beats return to the Wax Museum for another performance.
Juju is the sensually ecstatic dance music of the Yoruba, Nigeria's largest tribe. Anchored in waves of traditional tribal rhythms, it is spiced with such Western embellishments as trap drums, electric and steel guitars and synthesizers. A fusion of traditional and contemporary mannerisms, juju music is currently being touted as seminal Third World pop that could have a profound effect on tomorrow's music.
And so Sunny Ade' has become the symbol of the new African music, an innovator who will part the murky waters of cultural chauvinism, much as Bob Marley did with reggae.
It is as easy to describe Ade' as it is difficult to capture the sound of his music in print. Thin and relaxed, he exudes tremendous personal charisma and dignity. Given to modest white or blue suits, Ade' sometimes suggests a classic soul singer of the '60s (the cover of his new album reinforces the effect), but he carries himself with the consummate grace of a man at ease with great power.
On stage, he conducts the Beats with tiny gestures; he does not speak as much as command, pointing to soloists or choosing band members for a center-stage dance spot.
"I am a young man and I cannot say anything above my age," the 36-year-old Ade' said in soft, French-accented tones. "All that I believe is that everything has its own time ...
All this time many bands have been coming here," Ade' said, pointing out that he first toured America in 1975 as part of a government-sponsored cultural exchange program.
When he returned late last year, it was as a fledgling international pop star. "Now there are a lot of African groups trying to push their music to the Western world."
Juju music does not have the political heaviness of reggae, though it does share a subtle spiritual center. Ade' is aware of the inevitable comparison with Marley (their records are even marketed internationally by the same company, Chris Blackwell's Island Records). "I don't like for people to compare one man's music to another man's music because the motive behind everybody is different," he said quietly. "What I am pushing, the subject of all my songs, is peace and love and a party. When you have those you make friends, you have business together. The world is supposed to live in peace. And I'm happy that what Bob Marley preaches, many have come to like."
Juju music is a slow-motion hurricane with as many eyes as there are players; one cannot pass through it without being drenched in its relentlessly hypnotic energy. Rhythm is at its heart, with undercurrents and overcurrents twisting through each other like the warp and the woof of a newly woven straw mat.
"Africans have unlimited rhythms," Ade' said. "In Africa everything that happens, you can bring a rhythm out of it."
The jubilant textures of the juju rhythm are centered on echoey and elastic-sounding talking drums, which come in various sizes and tones and which sustain the traditional African call-and-response patterns also common to jazz and the blues.
"If you want to dance to this particular music," Ade' said, "all you need to do is to stay where you are, free yourself from your head to your waist, let it go, then from your waist to your legs. Let it go."
There is much more, of course. The rhythm and the lyrical dialogue (much of it taken from proverbs) are broken up by sporadic lead and pedal steel guitar bursts and echoing synthesizer lines.
Though Ade' will sometimes set down tangy lead guitar and the rest of the five-piece guitar section may topple over itself in friendly play, solo voices are subsumed to an ensemble spirit. With soft-spun vocals and chanted harmonies, the mood is communal and celebratory, not in an exuberant manner but a mesmerizing one. Nobody dominates. "Everybody has his own lines in the band at all times," Ade' said. "We give respect to each instrument."
Juju has been Nigeria's most popular music since the '20s. Its roots are in traditional religious music, but, Ade' pointed out, "it has nothing to do with religion at all. It is a music used to party, music for listening and for dancing. People have been refining, putting in the innovations: electric guitar, accordion, some horns, depending on the version you have. Every juju musician has his own identity and my identity is the way the band sounds. I introduced the steel guitar into the music, and also some synthesizers. You have to refine it, make it modern. If you keep on with only the tradititional, it will be limited."
Ade''s route to royalty has not been that much different from any pop star's. He caught the musical bug early on, playing congas at first and not picking up an acoustic guitar until 1964, when he was 17. He listened to the juju music of the day, played in a variety of bands, and absorbed techniques and influences from sources as diverse as George Benson, the Jackson Five, country singer Jim Reeves, Brook Benton and James Brown.
When Ade' finally picked up an electric guitar, he began to develop his own distinctive style. His first band's debut record sold all of 23 copies, but then he got the "break" that turned the tide. Ade' was hired to record a song celebrating the Nigerian national soccer champions, the Stationary Stars; quite unexpectedly, it sold 500,000 copies and made him a star as well, though certainly not a stationary one.
In 1970, Ade' became the first juju musician to release an album of all-original music, the first to make the music on each side of a record continuous, like the band in performance. Over the last decade, he has released 40 albums, none of them selling less than 200,000 copies.
Late last year, he released his first album here and it promptly went on most year-end best-of lists; a new album, "Synchro System" has just been released. Those records, which have sold respectably, are somewhat diluted to make them more accessible to American and British audiences, but Ade''s live concerts retain the exuberant and participatory nature of his past sound.
Although he would obviously like to "break" in America, Ade' finds solace in his proverbial patience. At home, he's not only the King, but a rich one, owning a hotel and a 1,000-seat nightclub in Lagos African pop will certainly have to struggle past language barriers, though Ade' insists "music is a language of its own."
"God's time is the right time," he said. "God's time is the best. There's unlimited music in Africa. If they can get a chance to be heard there is a lot of music that can come here. I love to be one of the pioneers, but people like Fela Kuti have been known before me. I came a different way, according to the time."
"Everything has its own time," he repeats. "I came into this world to make people happy. If you listen to the music, I believe you will like it."