Pleasure principles

King Sunny Adé still brings the beats
By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  July 10, 2009

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MINISTER OF ENJOYMENT Adé laments that on his current tour, he was able to take "only" 16 musicians, plus two dancers.

King Sunny Adé's music is bubbly as a tonic — a percolating, pop-infused update of the traditional Yoruba sound. "My songs are made to lift worries, so people can be happy and dance their troubles away," declares the 62-year-old Nigerian world-music star, as he prepares to come to the Museum of Fine Arts this Wednesday.

That would be too pat an explanation of Adé's art if his compositions weren't so irrepressibly gleeful. His guitar pecks out sprightly melodies all over his just-reissued Seven Degrees North (Mesa), which had been unavailable in the US since shortly after its 2000 release because of a distribution glitch. And the disc includes such breezy titles as "Appreciation" and "Congratulations (Happy Birthday)," celebrations of the joys of life, nature, and both the Divine and the human spirit, sung in a lush choral style.

As his tour bus rolls between dates in Minnesota and Illinois, Adé, whose given name is Sunday Adeniyi, ruminates over the phone on the differences between the upbeat music he plays called juju — a Nigerian word for magic — and the Afrobeat of the late Fela Kuti, his nation's other leading musical exponent. "Fela's music was darker and more influenced by America — James Brown — and he sang about politics. My music is more traditional, and purely a celebration."

Indeed, what Adé and his group the African Beats offer is a plugged-in update of the percussion-driven Yoruba tribal approach. "I started to play on acoustic guitar, in a traditional style, and I developed ideas about what I wanted to do to modernize the music of my ancestors. I used the drum kit to replace some of the group drums, and the pedal-steel guitar because it sounds like the African violin. I pick with my fingernails and use a bright sound on my electric guitar to imitate the thumb piano. And I kept the call-and-response singing style, because it is so beautiful. All that will never change in my music."

Although inspired by his ancestors, Adé's tunes on Seven Degrees North sometimes take complex turns. "Suku Suku Bam Bam," a celebration of God and destiny, embraces several buttery microtonal guitar excursions, and Adé delivers a solo that jumps from blues to jazz to pure African melody as it skips between major and minor keys. And "Ariya," where he sings his own praises, features a ferocious polyrhythmic percussion breakdown and a tempo that subtly increases to dragster speed.

Adé's current North American tour kicked off on June 12 at Bonnaroo 2009 in Manchester, Tennessee, with a stripped-down version of his band. "Our manger said we could only take 16 musicians, plus two dancers and a soundman. We all live like family on one bus. The band is supposed to have 23, but sometimes in Nigeria we have 40 people on the bus when we tour."

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