BECAUSE AFRICAN music gives its rhythmic elements the prominence that western music lavishes on melodic and harmonic development, it's easy to think that African music is about drumming. It isn't, any more than western classical is about violin playing. Rather, African music is concerned with developing rhythmic ideas through a variety of means, and that includes the use of melodic instruments.
That's an important point to bear in mind when approaching African pop records, because the parallels between rock or funk and African pop are often close enough to lull western listeners into thinking that the two can be approached in the same way. But to get the most out of African pop music, it helps if you learn to listen past what appears to be the melody, and try to absorb the music as a whole.
Fortunately, that's not as difficult as it might seem, especially if you start with an African musician as knowledgeable of the West as King Sunny Ade. Ade is the only West African pop musician with a major-label deal in the United States and Europe, and that isn't because there aren't hotter bands on the continent. It's because Ade is particularly adept at absorbing western musical ideas and technologies, and because he has come up with a version of a traditional Nigerian juju sound that's strikingly amenable to fans of experimental rock band music. Ade will perform Wednesday at Constitution Hall with the progressive reggae group Black Uhuru.
"Ase," the first track on his new albumn "Aura" (Island 7-90177-1), starts off with a rhythm arrangement that sounds remarkably like the electronics percussion of recent disco records. Of course, Ade's rhythmic ideas aren't nearly so monolithic, but they employ a number of the same textural and technological touches.
"Ase" also features a noteworthy guest musician, Stevie Wonder. Unfortunately, it's more an attention-getting cameo than a genuine contribution, for Wonder's harmonica solo appears to have been dubbed in after the rest of the song had been recorded. A pity, really, because Wonder's baroque ornamentation lends a markedly African flavor to his playing. But the fact that he is just ripping over a precut rhythm bed prevents any meaningful interaction from taking place.
Interaction is, after all, what this music is about. "Gboromiro" is built from layer-upon-layer of short instrumental phrases that intertwine to form a thick fabric of rhythm. Yet they also lay down a pattern of melody as well, for the piece relies as much on play between Ade's five guitarists for its rhythmic information as upon his six drummers. The only time any one player can be said to dominate the music is during a solo, but even then there is a sense of restraint that only comes from musicians aware of what their colleagues are thinking and playing.
Although much of the album is given over to the lush, lightly melodic juju style Ade has presented on his two previous Island albums, there are subtle variations. "Ogunja" introduces a rolling, triple-based rhythmic foundation that is new to Ade's American output and that offers a new perspective on his use of talking drums. "Ire," on the other hand, uses a central rhythm similar to that of "Synchro Feelings" from Ade's last album, "Synchro System." But here, Ade makes much more canny use of studio technology, adding extra texture to the call-and-response in the vocals and giving Ademola Adepoju's steel guitar a delightful soaring feel.
Not all African musicians interested in making a name for themselves in the West will go to the trouble of trying to adapt western ears to African sound. Some, particularly those with an inclination toward jazz, find it much easier to blend their own style into western music. That's what Ghanaian percussionist Obo Addy has done on his album, "Obo" (Avocet P-102 available through New Music Distribution Service, 500 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012.)
"Bakafa (Awunado)" opens with a strong, traditional vocal and percussion passage before jumping into a brassy horn figure that serves as the body of the composition; "Homesick" makes a similar leap when Addy's thumping drum figures are answered by the horns in unison. In both cases, the bridge from African to American style is sturdy and appropriate.
If anything, there is not enough difference between the two elements. That's fine if you're only interested in a little exoticism and a lot of hot drumming, but it can seem tame at times for the listener interested in more direct African influence. At least the soloists Addy has found, particularly trumpeter Thara Memory and trombonist Tom Hill, understand the idiom well enough to sound perfectly at home throughout the album.