Juju music -- King Sunny Ade's special gift to America
Visiting royalty usually come bearing gifts. Nigeria's King Sunny Ade is no exception, and on his first visit to America he's brought a special present. Juju music, a lilting, rhythmic, modern version of traditional African sounds is King Sunny's offering. And Americans are jamming concert halls across the country to hear him and his Nigerian band play their first North American tour.
Sunny Ade is actually prince of a city-state in Nigeria; he was deemed ''King'' because he is his country's No. 1 popular musician. After his 22-city concert swing through North America he may gain royalty status here too. In both Washington and New York he has drawn large crowds and rave reviews.
He and his band, the African Beats, have recorded more than 40 albums, averaging sales of 200,000. And his first American release, entitled ''Juju Music,'' (Mango Records MLPS 9712A), has been honored by Newsweek magazine, which named it to its list of the top ten albums of 1982.
Here in Boston, the mayor proclaimed his concert date ''King Sunny Ade Day'' as more than 1,200 people packed into the Bradford Ballroom to dance and celebrate with this rising international pop star.
The uniqueness, and the universality, of his music was evident from the first tune played. King Sunny and 16 members of his band (there are 22 when he performs in Nigeria) swarmed onto the stage clad in multicolored boui-bouis, Nigerian traditional clothing that stretches robelike from shoulder to toe. They began with the drum section - which includes kambas, Nigerian talking drums, and a trap set - setting down multiple rhythms, while their voices sang a call-and-response chant in Yoruba, the band's native tongue and the language in which all the lyrics are written.
The inviting pulse of the music immediately brought the audience to the large dance floor (a requisite for a King Sunny concert).
Meanwhile, on the stage, band members reached for their six steel and electric guitars, synthesizer, and percussion instruments while the five lead singers started into a dance step of their own. King Sunny, tall, slender, and with an appealing smile, swept his hands across the auditorium and exhorted the gathered to dance. Soon the whole concert hall was either swaying or singing or both - and the amazing thing was that probably most in attendance had no idea what the song was about (since it was in Yoruba).
Too bad most of the listeners couldn't understand the lyrics. Instead of the ''I'm so in love with you'' theme that pervades modern American music, juju music is concerned with bringing hope to the tough realities of everyday life. Many of the lyrics are drawn from African proverbs.
Some of King Sunny's selections included: ''E Saiye re,'' translated ''Be at peace with others;'' ''Ja Fummi,'' or ''Call Unto God to Fight for You;'' ''Maa Jo,'' a song that tells the listener to dance when things are going bad; ''Oro Oko,'' a tune that advises one not to interfere with others' marriages, and ''Pembele,'' an African folk song sung to children.
Mathew Olojede, a lead singer who has been with the band since 1966 (when King Sunny founded the group), says ''the purpose of the music is to make you forget your pains and put people at peace.'' This was plainly evident in the Boston appearance. The music, as the evening progressed, seemed to break down usual barriers between black and white and brought a special sense of brotherhood among the audience - which included Americans, Europeans, Asians, and Africans.
Juju music, which accounted for some 12 million albums sold last year in Nigeria, is an interesting mix of the hard strains of today's rock and the softer, subtler rhythms of traditional African melodies. Many people confuse juju music with reggae, but they're not the same.
Sunny Ade, in an interview with the Monitor, explained that his songs draw directly from the traditional folk songs of his tribe, the Yoruba.
''I will write the lyrics, then we all sit down and construct the music.'' The result is a complex and highly textured modern sound - one that has already influenced the work of many popular musicians, including David Bowie and the Talking Heads.
The band played with tremendous intensity. During the two sets, each lasting more than an hour, they played, danced, and sang without a break. As one song was fading, another beat would start slowly rolling off the kamba drums, and the band would begin again. The ceaseless sound put energy into the evening, but, for those that couldn't understand the lyrics, some of the songs became repetitious.
Long, uninterrupted performances are common for Sunny Ade and his group. He said that over this past holiday season they once played from 12 noon until 10 the next morning, nonstop.
When asked how he sustains such long performances, Sunny Ade replied, ''It can happen to anyone. When you listen to the music, in that moment you become happy, and you forget your tiredness.'' For him, a constant inspiration is his band: ''When I see my boys in action, putting their feeling into the music, I can go on.''
To Sunny Ade, though, large numbers of listeners are not all-important. Speaking of his concert appearances, he said: ''If there were only four people there, we would still play a normal show. The music is our happiness.''
Remaining cities on his tour are Houston - March 1; Atlanta - March 3; New York, - March 4; Miami - March 6; Washington - March 7.