Talking to the King: An Interview with King Sunny Ade
Banning Eyre and Sean Barlow interviewed King Sunny Adé on Sunday May 1, 2005 the day King Sunny Adé did a rare, acoustic performance at Joe’s Pub in New York City. This is part 1 of an interview that lasted almost three hours.
SB: What was it like it like growing up? What were you listening to?
KSA: I was born the 22nd of September, 1946 to a royalty family. Both parents of mine, they are from royal homes. My grandfather is a king in Ondo State. The father of my mother is a king in Akoure, about a thirty minute drive between the two cities.
When I was I young – I could remember at the age of five, around that time I loved music to the extent that any dance, any musician or performance dance I would love to copy. In those days there are some people selling some kind of products. They had the vans, selling some products – they had the megaphone on top of the van. The moment they started – any of them – playing music, I would follow them by running, after them. When they stopped, to sell their products, they would like to play some music and they had some performance with dance to make the crowd come. I would just jump from the crowd and join them. And you can imagine a little kid dancing to this and that. And occasionally they would go and tell my family that they saw me dancing — which was not supposed to be.
From there I started thinking ‘How will I get into music?’ My father has this gramophone player. We had so many records, foreign records…Brazilian records, we call them GV… GV-1, GV-2, GV-22, GV-18. It has no name, just GV. I can cram all the songs into my head – I don’t know what it means. It’s like me singing for you here – you don’t know until when I explain. I loved the music so madly that I decided one day I would like to play music. I just want to be a musician. So for anybody to teach me, where will I start? The guitar is not so popular… only the renowned artists have guitars. To go to school for a lesson in music — the family will never allow me to do that. I joined Boys Brigade. From there they had set up, a band – for the brigade.
They have a snare drum, they have a bass drum, they have a trumpet, they have everything, but I so much enjoy snare. Every year we have, once or twice, the army coming from the barracks – they have to do the parade around the whole town, so I enjoy the snare player, so I would follow them from morning – from about 8 in the morning to about 6 in the evening – without taking water or anything, because I so much love the sound of music.
BE: What kind of music are they playing?
KSA: You know, regiment music… army band marching brigade… “boom boom, brahm-di-di-dahn gi-di gi-dahn”. I always loved to see the leader…how he used to conduct the whole group… because he doesn’t look back. During that time, I was not allowed to play anything at the school. You know, being royal, and from a royal family. I didn’t like it – it was like holding me back, it’s like making me a slave. Play music!
The kings are the custodians of all music, drama, culture, whatever, anything – including the religion. When the Muslims want to do a festival they have to consult the king, when the Christians want to do anything they have to consult the king. They have to pass through in front of the palace – to make sure they paid homage to the king. And from there you enjoy so much music, different music, different dances, different culture and colors. I didn’t like to miss that. Because of this they almost put me in a boarding school I had to explain to my mother, “Look, being in a boarding school is not good for me.” She said “Why?” I said, “Because I would be there alone, you know? I wouldn’t be a free person.” So my mother said, “Yes, okay. I will talk to your father about it.” So all of a sudden I wasn’t being taken to the boarding school. So I’m so happy.
I grew up liking different music, especially from this part of the world, the western world like Brook Benton, Jim Reeves, Grover Washington, BB King, Don Williams a lot!. When you’re talking about the traditional music as well, that’s unlimited, unlimited. There are few of them that are privileged to record. Even up to now, there are thousands and thousands of musicians out there in Africa. Unless you go there and record them – like the one you told me about now – you can’t find them on a record.
I enjoy traditional music, but it’s difficult for me to be a part of it. When I was 17, I decided to run away with a musician called Moses Olaiya and his Rhythm Dandies. I played a prank on my family, which I sincerely apologize to them for. I’m still apologizing until now. I played a prank on them which is not good. I’ve already told my children that for this I’ve already apologized and I don’t want them to do it to me. I even appealed to them that it is not good, it is sinful, to tell your parents that you are in the school somewhere but you are not in the school. I told my parents that I won a scholarship in Lagos, it was about 250 miles from my town. By that time my family was in Oshobo I was taken to Oshobo to school there.
BE: What was his music like?
KSA: It plays in between I.K. Dairo music and all the traditional music. He doesn’t play guitar – he’s a singer. Just for me to find a place to play, just for me to be among the musicians, and then you can imagine those who knew me within the band, it’s difficult for them to talk to me. Because I’m from the royalty you can’t shout at me – but I want everybody to do the same thing to me. They can’t. So I left to join a group called Idou Woye. That group, they used to play in a night club. I loved the music, I loved the people, I loved the band leader, I loved the attitude, but I was scared because they used to play in a nightclub.
BE: This is still at Oshobo?
KSA: Oh this at Oshobo. The nightclub is called Pax Hotel in the Watedu area of Shobuta. And this club was so popular — very, very popular. Unfortunately, I don’t know how I can [play]. And still I was underage – so how will I be playing in a nightclub? So I tried to convince the leader, but I found it so tough. And he saw that I was a very good percussionist. I trained myself to be a percussionist. I want to play every drum available, even the house, I play the seats, everywhere, music, anything. Around are musical instruments, and that’s when my family began to observe what is going around me. And I said I just love music… From there I decided to say to myself “let me run away.” They wanted to install a new king in Abeokata – at state in the Western side of Nigeria, but now it’s an open state. And that’s the city where M.K. Abdullah, Fela, Basoujo, The President — where huge stars came from. So they wanted to install the new king after the death of the first one. This band was called to perform and I had to follow them. Now, luckily for me it was during the vacation/holiday time that I went with them. From there, we almost got stranded because the organizer didn’t do well, so we’re all left alone. I decided from there, ‘Let me continue my journey to Lagos.’ So they leave some money for me, I just try my luck – I’ve never been to Lagos before… I didn’t know anyone in Lagos except one particular guy – he played in the same band with me, then he went to go play with Olaiya. So from there I sent a communication to him and he told me if I could come it would be fine. So I went, from Abeokata I went. I told my band leader that “I’m going to Lagos to meet my brother.” I couldn’t tell him that I’m going to join another band – because it’s not fair.
BE: What year was this?
BE: What was Lagos like?
KSA: It was like somebody coming from Los Angeles to New York for the first time. The moment you leave the car or the train or bus you see the tall, tall buildings around you. You’d be looking as if you stole something and they are looking for you. Lagos is like New York to Nigeria. A lot of people from all over the whole world in Lagos. Music there has been embraced by people. Olaiya is very popular too. There are two Olaiyas there. One is called Dr. Victor Olaiya, he plays Highlife music. Another one is Moses Olaiya, he plays Juju music. Now that I came to Lagos, I wanted to find Moses Olaiya. So people would take me down to Victor Olaiya. Victor Olaiya said I had to go back to Duru(?). When I went to Duru I got lost, so I had to ask somebody a way to find this gentleman… I joined the group from there. What will I tell my family? I was almost 18 years old. The band leader said “Have you been playing with a band before?” I said “ Yea, yea, yea. I’m from the school, I used to go there,” this and that – I really didn’t want him to throw me out. At the end of the day he said “We’ll try you tonight — at the show.” And we went to play in a nightclub with about 800-1000 people seated. And here is me, the youngest among the band and I started playing my drums and you can imagine the whole place was “ohh, where’d you get this boy from… this is nice…”
BE: How big was that band?
KSA: Eight. We’re only eight. The leader plays guitar, accordion and talking drum like I.K. Dairo. We have one samba drum player, we have one player of shakers, which are maracas. We have a conga, we have a tom-tom, we have a bass drum. I think that’s it. I play the tom-tom. Fortunately for me the guy that used to play the toms before I came to the band was a blind man. So it’s more or less like I came to assist or I came to help: finding a blind man playing drums and now a small boy. People were thinking that I am his son. When they said “Are you the son?” I would say “Yes. I am more or less his son,” in order for them to not ask more questions…
After two years I decided to write home. “I’m sorry I’m in Lagos, I’m so excited, it’s because when I received the scholarship from University of Lagos I am unable to even travel back, so I don’t want to miss the university, and that’s why I stayed here, and I am staying with a friend, and that friend is Chief So-so-so’s, and we are all happy, and the chief is–” It’s a lot of lies. What will I tell the band leader? I have to call the band leader and tell him the truth. It was a big thing that really worried him a lot, and he decided to say “we have to tell your family the truth.” He helped me tell them. Before that time it was easier, because I lost my father and my mother is in love with me and with anything I do. And she would be there for me as a father, as a mother, as everything.
BE: So you lost your father, he had died?
KSA: Yes, he died.
KSA: When I was eight.
BE: Oh, very young.
KSA: Yes, very young.
BE: So it’s really your mother who is…
KSA: Yes, it’s my mother really who was there. But I have brothers and sisters and uncles that were really, really like disciplinarians – those who really took the culture and the heritage as firm, and nobody could change their attitude. “You cannot do this, you cannot do that — this is what you are supposed to do!”
BE: So, If you’re royal does that mean you’re not allowed to play music?
KSA: You should not. They had to play music for you. And who would you play for? A king cannot play music for his subjects. So it’s the subjects that have to play music for the king and the princes and the princesses. You’re not supposed to play music, at all. For me. Other princes and princesses, they could do that. But me, I cannot – they don’t allow me to do it. Dobai tradition in many kingship, in many towns that have a king – the son, or the prince, or the princess should not play music. They can dance to music for a certain time. Or during any traditional festival or a special program for the king, they can dance. But a king or a prince cannot start playing drums – for who? The prince cannot play for the king. Only the subjects play for the king. So, this is the situation where I had my push on my own. I’m at university, my mother is okay – since we are in Oshobo and not in Ondo town… Being that I was the person that told my mother directly that I was in the school, she took me for real. But, how about the results (from school)? After a year I still didn’t show up. So I had to tell my boss. And my boss had to explain everything to my mother, extremely explain to my mother.
BE: That was after a year?
KSA: That was after a year, so it was a really, really tough time. I was troubled because I didn’t know what going to happen.Because that could make my mother sick or die – for me going from that to another side of the world. But, as God would have it, the whole thing was a little bit okay. She was troubled she was made to believe that anybody that plays music is a dropout from school; you have to smoke ganja, you have to smoke cigarettes, you have to drink alcohol, you’re not going to be disciplined, you won’t dress well, you’ll sleeping all around places, you’ll be moving with girls, all this and that. So, my Mother was troubled… she was really, really upset. She would say “you see what you’ve done to yourself?” And I said, “Look, Mom. I love what I love. I just love music. I can’t do without it.” So, from there a gentleman came after three years – and told my boss Olaiya and said “I want this boy. I have some instruments at my house. And I want — will you give me this boy to lead the band?” He was a band leader before, but he doesn’t want to play again.
BE: This is back in Oshobo now?
KSA: Lagos. Back to Lagos, back to Lagos. So, from there – the boy on the stage here with me tonight – the boy that stands on my left [in performance of African Beats], is the grandson of the man who I was referring to.
SB: Very good. A good dancer too.
KSA: Yes. So, I intentionally asked his father to let him come with me after school to join the group. And he agreed. He’s a percussionist too. He plays guitar a little. He sings and he dances. So to him I said, “Your grandfather was the first to give me instruments. So, I am here now – let’s go tour the whole world And if you want to become a band leader, I’ll buy instruments.” This is what I had in mind if he’s ready to. He told me he’s not ready to have any band at the moment. I told him, “But whenever you’re ready, I’m here.”
SB: And your first band? The Green Spots?
KSA: Yes. Green Spots band. Before Green Spots we were looking for a name. The man who gave us the instruments, the name of his former band was – he had a name that he wanted us to lead. And I said, “No, I don’t want to read that band,” Simply because it was a band that used to play for politicians. And they are still recognized as that band. I will tell you the name of that band through his grandson when we’re finished. So, “You want to lead?” and I said, “No. We’d rather form Sunny Adé’s Juju band. ” Later on when I said, “Okay, my name is Sunny Adé. I really don’t want my family to know my full name, because if they know they will come and grab me there again. They don’t know. They’re thinking I’m still in the school or playing with Moses Olaiya as kind of a support. But they didn’t actually know that I formed a group on my own. Oh how will I do that?
So, I cut my name short: from Sunday to Sunny, from Adeniyi Adegeye to Adé. So Sunny Adé. Adé is a crown. Any name starting from the crown’s name is a prince… starting with Adé or end up with Adé – those are the princes and princesses. All my children, all their names start from Adé: Ademi, Adeniyi, Adé – but some were born on Sunday. They’re still called Sunday. Adeniyi is the first name of my father. My father’s name is Samuel Adeniyi Adegey. So I’m Sunday Adeniyi Adegeye. We’re bearing his own particular name – the grandfather’s name. So we carry it together. So that’s all of us that are bearing. So those who are born on Sunday – some of my children were born on Sunday — they are called Sunday Adeniyi Adegeye.
So, as I was saying, I’ve now formed a group in 1966 with the help of my boss and a friend of his. He has passed away, and may his soul rest in perfect peace. Here we are today, being a rascal person – I was mischievous when I was young, I was very rascal, and I saw myself as a rebel within the family. It took me many, many years to talk to the entire family, and to be free with them. It took me almost twenty years to do it, simply because it’s like whatever anything I do to them is like, “hmmm? He’s not part of us. Why are we proud of him?” But gradually, they now know the difference. “This is what he wants to do –”
BE: Twenty years.
KSA: As long as it doesn’t interfere with the tradition, it doesn’t overrule what is supposed to be, it doesn’t condemn the heritage. So eventually you have to leave me alone. Now I am, more or less, an ambassador of the family, and the town, and the nation.
BE: Yes, that’s fascinating.
SB: Let’s talk about the praise singing, which is so much a part of your art and the tradition you come out of. We understand its interweaving histories, proverbs, current events –
BE: …knowledge about towns and families –
SB: …the fortunes all put together in very artful language and so on. How did you learn this art?
KSA: Well, It’s very simple for me to learn. It’s like an inheritance. It’s a heritage. But not direct – it’s easier to learn music in Nigeria by mere moving with them and loving the music. They will allow you to touch the drum or sing along with them – like here too. Lot’s of people who really don’t take music as their profession but can play good music, they can sing well, they can do anything – but they don’t do it as a profession. It’s like that way back home.
Come to praise singing and phrasing. Praise singing has been the tradition of African music from the onset, especially in the western side of Nigeria – Yorubas. We believe that whoever makes or does anything that really helps the people has to be praised. And it’s all over the whole world. And over here, when somebody does something nice, or is a very good performer and is so popular and helps people, then we’ll put his name in the hall of fame, or give him an award or make a statue with his name. And this is what has been happening all over. In the olden days, praise singing started with a citation. Before you give an award to somebody, you read his citation. So the citation has been there all along the memory of everybody who knew much about the family. Like for me, If you want to praise me now, apart from singing the song, you’d praise me by reading my citation by way of calling the praise of so-so-so-so warrior on those days did that, and your father and your great grandfather does these does that does that – which is real – what you read about. You can see it from the mouths of the praise singers. Some of them are musicians – they’ll praise you along with that. So it’s something that can make you so happy and feel good at “Yes – you are a true son of your father.” This is what the praise singing is all about. It has been from the onset. I met it. I inherited it. And I’m going to leave it for the next generation coming.
BE: You have to know a lot about people though, you have to know a lot of history and whose family. How did you learn all that stuff?
KSA: When I was little in the house… everywhere! The moment you are coming, they know who you are: the son, even by your name. When they mention your name the history has been there. It’s like everybody knows the history of so-so-so’s family that came from so-so-so place. They will even read your citation from where your great-grandfather hailed from. You see, all these are things that I met within the house and also when I joined the band and I saw how the band leader was praising people. And there are some praise songs and there are some praise phrases, by way of reading it and just talk “wow, you are the true son of your father, you look like your father, especially when we see the picture of your father, you look alike, and believe me, I am very convinced you are the true son of your father,” and you say “That’s me. It must be right. I should give him money.” And giving money, it has been there from the onset.
In the olden days, when a performer performs so well the king would call the performer and he would take cowry (shells) – the first money to be spent on the planet – they would take cowry and put a rope on it and tie it around the forehead of the performer. So that is the sign that a king appreciates what he or she has done. And they would dance around. The moment you saw that cowry on his forehead, then what you needed to do is stand up, give a standing ovation and clap… And now what is really happening up ‘til now, some people will pay it to your forehead and people will just throw it to your body and just leave it. And over here, you don’t carry currencies, you carry cards. So what you need to do is go to a beautiful shop and buy very good flowers and give it to the performer. It’s the same thing. It’s an appreciation.
SB: You have reputation for doing it at a very special high level.
BE: The praise singing…
SB: The actual composing, improvising lyrics on the spot…
BE: What about the musical side of it? You have to make it musical, right?
KSA: Yes. What I used to do, even though I don’t know the person, I can just use his figure. Sometimes, I would see you like this, I’d say (to you Sean) “You’re so much handsome. But to me, you look like the image of Jesus Christ.”
SB: Many people have told me that.
KSA: This is what the instinct that would just come to my mind like that. Sometimes if I know the particular person as somebody that wants me to quickly call him a moron… I would just tell him straight, I’d say, “Think about it. Always remember the summer… and the son of whom you are.” So eventually that means – that’s a proverb – that you are in the foreign land, you have to behave. So the person will cool off.
BE: Remember your father even if he’s not here.
SB: That’s good.
KSA: Remember your father, that you know that your father is not here, you have to behave – very well. If you run into trouble, your father is far away from your foreign land. He cannot come the same day – you’ll be in prison before he comes. That’s a proverb like when they say “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” or “When you are in Rome, you do as the Romans.” So all the songs are more or less a proverb. I sing mostly proverbs. I can tell you an indirect message. You will receive the message, but it’s really indirect.
Like I want to tell you now, I love what you’re doing. But somebody has done it before. I wanted to check the forestep. Or I will tell you, “somebody has done something like this before. I wanted to check what he has done.” That means, you have to know somebody has done something before, like what you’re doing now. You better take the good side of it. Or else if you do the same thing, you’re going to end up badly. So everything is a proverb.
SB: Can you give us examples of these proverbs in Yoruba?
KSA: First let me take one of the songs. “Ja Funmi” which is very common for here. “Ja Funmi” is “Fight for me.” Now when I say “Ja, Ja Funmi,” – “Fight, fight for me.” Then I will now say my head should fight for me. That means my head should protect me. Because I use my head instead of calling my God. This is my god. God created my brain to control myself. So this is representative of my God. So you should protect me, you should fight for me. Because the vulture was helped by his head. The birds are being helped by their heads. Even the snakes are being like that. So I want it to fight for me as well. It’s like a proverb, it’s like a proverb. You have to compare what you’re saying with another thing. I want to be like a deer. I don’t want to be like a pig. I want to be like an ostrich but I don’t want to be like a chicken. Because for you to kill a deer it takes time because it’s so beautiful – you find it difficult to kill. When it’s a pig – pork is everywhere, you know it’s easier. But ostrich, when you see ostrich, you like to think “ostrich – you don’t want to kill.” But other birds you say “Oh come on, I prefer this.” And it’s the same thing that goes with a frog. You can’t compare a frog with a fish. Even with fish, a fish has different categories. There are gold fish. You take care of your gold fish, you eat the rest of the fishes. This is kind of a proverb you would normally say.
SB: In the performance on Friday I noticed – because we were very close – the Nigerians around us, when you sang “Ja Funmi” they loved it and they were singing along.
KSA: Yea! Yes, yes. Just like that. You use your head to represent your God.
SB: And you still perform that every time?
SB: It’s a classic. People love it.
KSA: Sometimes when I play new songs, people are lookin’ at me. Then I say “Okay, let’s go back to the old songs. I won’t mention the name of the song. And they know the song –
SB: Right away.
KSA: Right away dancing
BE: Takes us back…
KSA: Yes. Most of my songs they always know it. The moment it comes out they know it.
SB: And your American fans too, like me, you know, when we first heard that first record [Ju Ju Music (Island Records, 1982)], you know that that was such a beautiful song.
KSA: Thank you.
SB: And as soon as we heard it: “ahhhh!”
KSA: Yes, it is like that.
SB: I think I’ve told you, you were the first, you were a big inspiration, the big inspiration for Afropop. Because I had heard your music, but never seen you play live and I first saw you in Berkeley, California at Zellerbach Hall in February 1983.
KSA: I remember.
BE: We talked about praising. And praising is a big thing and you are one of the great preservers and developers of this art in your time.
KSA: Praising is in two or three ways one. If you are Christian, all you need to do is praise God, Jesus. If you are a Muslim it’s to praise God and holy Muhammed. And if you are a traditionalist you praise God, may you praise anything you believe in. It has been on and on, there’s no way anywhere in the world where there are churches – you have to praise God, and praise Jesus Christ. The same thing in the mosque: you have to pray to god and praise the holy prophet Muhammad. In this case, the traditionalists, they do, those who worship thunder, Shango, they praise god, they praise Shango because they believe that it is one of the arms of God. And that is way they praise him. They don’t want Shango to strike. Because they believe if you don’t worship Shango it will strike. And that’s why you see if you ever have tall buildings or equipment somewhere and you have to put up thunder protector. Eventually that’s a sign that “I love you. I’m with you. Don’t damage this equipment.” That’s a belief. The way they also worship the God of iron. In my hometown, once a year we worship the god of iron – the whole town. It’s now more like a festival, though the king may not be a part of the rituals. He will sit out to see the people performing. They worship the God of iron because they believe if you don’t worship or respect the God of iron, he can strike: accidents, lots of things, you cut your finger, you fight and the blood. This is iron – Iron brings blood out from a human being quicker than any other thing. Even though you shoot somebody – the bullets came from iron. Whatever anything you do – even to dress your wound, the machine that was made to do it is from iron. So, believe that that is one of the hands of God. Those that worship water… they believe that when you come to this world for the first time, the first thing to be given to you is water. And then you have to worship that . If water strikes, eventually you will drink water – you go off. There can be a disaster – also they ritualize one of the other arms of god. God exists like – and people worship. Some people would even worship the devil because they know when the devil strikes he’s going to disorganize the whole thing. Worshiping him is like keeping him at bay, giving him respect. That’s way we have different music for different shrines. Those who worship Shango dance to bata drums – you can’t find the bata drums with those worshiping the river. You have to get the talking drum for the river. We have different equipment and sounds. So when my sisters now want to take Juju music and play an open, independent place – beyond or outside the shrines – they have to pick some instruments from different [places] and pick some sounds together, join them together to make music. And the music is called asiko.
And from there, when the colonial masters don’t know what it means… see, when we played tambourines in the olden days I would play for a couple of minutes and then I would throw it to you and you grab it and start playing it. When I say “Ju,” then I’d throw – Ju means throw. Juju – throw it, throw it. You know, throw it, throw it. And that’s why they call it Juju. Juju, so that’s the name. When the colonial master said “what are you saying when you say Juju?” And we’d say “throw, throw.” “why don’t you say ‘throw, throw?’” “No. Ju. There’s Ju – ju.” And when the colonizer, when white man said “ju,” then you’d throw it. There was like a foreigner within the music.
BE: And you’re throwing the tambourine…
KSA: You throw the tambourine.
SB: And tell us about sakara.
KSA: Sakara is a different music — but they are related to each other. Sakara, the way they play the Sakara — first of all, the drum was made from the edge of the pot, any pot. And it depends on the size of the picked pot. A pot, you can choose a flower pot for its edge. You have a skin to cover, that little part – little edge. And then you put pegs around it to tighten the drum. When it dries, you can use, you can try to nail it. The moment you want to tune it, then you hit the pegs and it gives you the tone you want. You play it with a stick, but unlike talking drum, talking drum is made from hollow wood and both sides have skin and have twine in between. That twine is made from leather… it has a certain wood for it, not just any wood, it has a certain wood they use for it. The moment you play it I will know from far away that that’s not a good drum. In fact, the way you play it, I can hear it from far away, even though you’re not getting nearer to me, that you’re not a drummer – you’re not from the home of drummers. Like these two boys – about three or four of them [in KSA’s band]. They are from the drummer’s home. Their father is a drummer. They were born into drumming. So you can see them when they hold it or when they’re making it, you can know that they’re from that home. They pronounce what they want to pronounce so well to the ears of the listeners.
Way back home, there are some certain people, they don’t even care about what I sing about, all they want to hear is what the talking drum is saying. Sometimes you play talking drums to abuse you. You can fight, you can do your own duel, because the words from the drums hit you so hard… when I sing a song and I said “the family should take care of the children, the children will remember they have a father wherever they are, this and that, they must behave very well, because they must know tomorrow is theirs, ours is today. We’re the fathers, ours is today, yours is tomorrow, but you must do everything to make sure that tomorrow is okay for you, you don’t need to suffer before you get there or when you get there… let’s enjoy ourselves together: oh my baby, I like you, and I’m in love with you, this time we have to get together.” The drummer can say “mafowau ko benyae e jodio bahg mi’jo, daddy – DUN, dun, DUN, dun, dun, dun – dun, dun, dun dun, du’oon. Du’oon ding. Don’t touch that side, you only dance with me, please.” That means when the age group of a father is in a discotheque and dancing with the age group of his own grandchildren. So eventually it’s, “Don’t hold the baby, just dance with her.”
SB: Oh, I see. It’s sort of advising.
KSA: The Elders. Elders, yes.. As long as you are older you don’t need to mess around with kids. Because you have to put yourself in the position that this is your child. By tradition, by African tradition, in any of our dances, a man doesn’t hold a woman to dance.
BE: So when the Europeans came with that idea, that was a very strange idea.
KSA: That was very, very strange.
SB: Like foxtrots and waltzes…
KSA: It’s still strange now because hardly you can find any African music where a man and a woman are holding together to dance. It is not forbidden, but it has never been said. You have to respect a woman, you have to admire a woman dancing. That’s the time you can see how beautiful your baby is. In any African it’s more or less like doing a workout, you have to stretch your body, the body language must be there. Her body must roll as if – you know like the snake dance?
BE: Let’s come back to other styles in Nigeria, like apala.
KSA: Apala is – we were talking about Sakara before we went another way. Sakara – when you make that drum, it has to be two of the same size, and another smaller one – it has to be one. Then you have to bring a calabash. You know a calabash? You have to put rings on your ten fingers to play the calabash to give you the rhythms. And now you go with it. And that is purely Sakara – with local African violin; that is Sakara music. All the songs have to go like rhythm and blues.
BE: Is that from the North?
KSA: No, from the west [of Nigeria]. From the west. The kind from the north is quite different, they play the same thing but they use a kanango, a talking drum, long talking drum. Longer than mine. We call that one kanango, it’s not gangan. The one I’m using now is called gangan. But the other one from the north is longer. They don’t press so hard. It’s like bang-birang bang-bidangy-dang j’dang-dangy. That’s how they play. While in the west you can play the notes j’du’j’du’duuu’du’dju. You call names of people. Because we’re using that talking drum to – it’s the first communication equipment we had. In Apala you have my kind of gangan , then you have a thumb piano – a box, a four cornered box with a hole in the center and you have some panel on it to play the rhythms, then you put rings on your fingers to hit the box to give you the rhythms. Then they have the shekere which is a shaker with a calabash and this and that. They have bass drum, the big bass drum that goes along with it. Then they have another, smaller talking drum, but very tiny and small and small, and we call it emele – they have it for a bigger background. And that is Apala. They sing in major key. That is Apala. They sing in major, but Sakara sings in minor.
SB: Apala, was that what you were listening to while growing up?
KSA: I listened to every kind. That kind of music was around me always, always.
SB: Live ensembles…
KSA: Yes! I will even play it tonight. I play Apala. It’s only that we were looking for a violin and we didn’t get a violin… and that thumb piano, the fork on the box with the hole in the center, and it has three or four metal panels on it, tied to it. There are some on the wood, a flat wood, we’ll call it molo – so you play it like that – a series of music, a series of instruments. So Apala is quite different. Punctuality is the soul of business. We have to work at the right time and take care of the work that we’re doing.
BE: What is the soul of business?
KSA: Punctuality. Yes. Being on time. These are things that are normally sung about.
BE: Is Juju a younger, more modern tradition than these ones we’ve just been talking about?
KSA: Yes, simply because my ancestors introduced modern equipment into it. And they put more electric guitars and accordions. They carry juju from dance floor to concert hall; they carry it rom concert to festival. But Apala and Sakara remain completely traditional. Unlike now where the son of Haruna Ishola is mixing up with the drums, with whatever, But it’s true it’s been there for ages.
SB: Young people are still learning and playing…the traditional way?
KSA: Yes. Why the younger one doesn’t follow so much is because they, like Juju music, we often like to go along with culture… You see people wearing these types of dresses we wear – English dress. But when I’m playing in Lagos or anywhere in Nigeria, in a party or anywhere in Africa, everybody must be in their traditional national robes. Because if you wear English dress, they’re like “Are you at this party or you just coming up from London or from America?” You know? So you find it’s just a little bit awkward.
SB: People expect you to look – to respect the tradition.
KSA: That’s why you saw some Nigerians on Friday in their robes. They wear the same dress with their wives. Let it flow.
SB: Can you just tell us what I.K. Dairo meant to you, what was his influence on you, your memories of him? Did you see him perform?
KSA: Yes. I.K. Dairo is more or less like a father to me. He is my role model, he is one of my greatest inspirations. He’s someone that I love so much and I have so much respect for him. Until when he was being laid down into the hole when he died, I didn’t believe he was a human being. I was thinking he was a saint. Because from the onset I loved his music and I appreciate his music so much. And that’s a part of my music you can hear – the maracas in my music, it’s there. And that’s the first thing I appreciated in his music. And it’s still in my music. And he can find his hands to play the accordion, and he plays so well…Eventually he made every single Juju musician to stand up on their two feet by way of his being the one who first of all turned it into being a real business.
In his own time he lived in the western side of Nigeria and he used to come to Lagos to play. He was supposed to stay in Lagos but he decided not to simply because he wanted to start his organization a different way. He was the first to have well organized booking management, band management, like a good organization. When you want to book him you have to go through the manager, the P.R.O. this and that. So when it is our own time with me and Ebenezer Obey we followed his footsteps. We organized offices, we have managers, we turned into a business. So I became a chairman of this, Ebenezer Obey is the chairman of this, everybody.. As a business man, I.K.Dairo made us to stand on our two feet to become a real musician turned businessman.
BE: Tunde Nightingale, what was important about him?
KSA: Well, Tunde Nightingale is someone who has a voice like a woman. And his own style of music is juju music still, but he has a different style that he used to sing. He used to play open-chord guitar. And I.K. Dairo used to capo his guitar. But this guy would play his guitar open, and he would tune his guitar open. And when he was playing, it was three people playing together, with a bass guitar and all those things together. And he has such a powerful voice. And when I looked at him I look at his music and I say “Nobody copies this guy.”
I’d been playing with a group that plays like I.K. Dairo for years before I formed my band. And then I said “Where will I go? I want to find my own identity.” So I decided to copy Tunde Nightingale. So, nobody copies Nightingale… except me. Now, and I said to myself, “If he’s playing open- chord, I have to find my own way. I don’t want to sound as a copycat. And then I decided to change my guitar to open-chord and play rhythm with it. Play dance instrument like as if I’m playing percussion. So that is my own area of my jurisdiction. They now knew me for that. So this is how my identity came.
SB: Was it also his way of singing high that you adopted?
KSA: His own style of music, the sound is quite different to I.K.Dairo’s music. His kind of music is like playing dance music, stroke, rhythm and blues, you know like, mixed up of things like that. If you want to have a quick step or a slow dance while you have quick dance – he has his own kind of music like that. He uses one guitar, one bass drum. Instead of using tom toms like I.K. Dairo he used another big drum, then he has clips, that he used, then he plays the maracas. And he doesn’t use this type of talking drum – he used the northern kanango to play. So whatever anything the talking drums are saying people will find a meaning to it (spoken drum proverb).
He sings so high that I cannot sing like that, because its so higher than my voice. But when I was young I sing closer. But the bottom line is I just want to play like him to differentiate from other juju music I’ve been playing, and change my guitar to what people will recognize me with.
SB: When you’re in a groove with your band and you’re feeling it and everyone’s feeling it, what is the way you say it when you shout out?
KSA: Sometimes I say “Synchro, Synchro system.” Or sometimes I say “Ehhh”. And I would say “Ehhh,” they would say, “Ehhyenye.” When I say “Ehhhhh, ” and they say “It is.” So it’s like a slang, we just create a slang. Sometimes the talking drumming can say something and then we just grab something, something similar, and we just plug it in there. Or sometimes when we finish one song: azuba koseh illite a ehhhhh, baba koseh, baba koseh illite a ohhh or they would say awoh tideh ohh it depends on what they feel like to sing. It’s like when you go on the road and you hit your right foot on the stone, so eventually where you are going is going to be a pleasant one. You are going to be okay there.
Sometimes when I say “Ibikonu, hwey! Ibikonu, hwey! Ibikonu.” That’s from the east, when they see each – Ibo people – when they see each other, when they are in the mix they will say “Ibu! Igbukonat. Ibgbu, are you there? Yes. Are you there? Yes. Are you there? Yes.” So they really don’t want to put it into Yoruba.
BE: Tunde King, let’s just get a word on him?
KSA: Tunde King is the one that really brought guitar into juju music. Tunde King was so popular and he plays his own guitar with a modern guitar. It’s like Chuck Berry, and those ones who were first of all, the guitar they used were not like the guitars they use now – now it’s like easy guitar, you electrify it, you can get it tuned, if you like if you don’t you are going to different equipments or foot pedals, whatever give you the sound you need. So Tunde King is a juju musician that really really really brought in music to much much closer to the royalties. Because he plays often for Lagos’ king. So whenever they have a big deal, Tunde King is there to play for them. So whenever anybody, presidents comes from anywhere in the world, he plays. Because he associates with the bigwigs.
SB: Tell us a little bit about palmwine music in Nigeria and your experience with it.
KSA: Palmwine, on its own, is a wine from the palm tree. The palmwine, when the palm tappers climb the palm tree, the truth of the palm, they chop the palm with a small axe, so the water that is coming from that one, they will have to get it out. It’s difficult for you to drink it raw – it’s very, very strong. It’s like you drinking a whiskey. They have to bring it down, they have to mix it with water.. And now they will bring it to the bar, or under the tree, that’s where they normally enjoy themselves, under the huge tree. Because nearly, in those days, nearly every house has a big trees in the front [of the] house. So that is where you sit down, we play games… so the little kids would be playing different things. The elders would sit down under the whole thing and would enjoy themselves. So you bring your music down there, enjoy yourself.
KSA: Some guitar. Some thumb piano. There are some who don’t even use anything, they just use a different kinds of tambourine, there are some tambourines that have no leather, like an open tambourine. There are some who have leather, there are some that are steel, and shaken. Stopped and shaken.
BE: Is palmwine music more a music for sitting and listening to and singing together rather than dancing?
KSA: Yes, from the onset. There’s a lot of music, for instance, Juju music, we’ll call it raw Juju music. It’s like tonight [at Joe’s Pub acoustic concert], you don’t need to dance, you need to listen. But this generation is now sight and vision. You have to hear, you have to see how they do it. That’s why – juju musicians don’t stand – I am the one who made juju musicians to stand up. To be in a concert.
SB: Anything else that we haven’t talked about that you’re going to do tonight in concert that’s important to you –
KSA: When I started playing, my first record, when I got to the studio, we used only one microphone for the whole band. So the way we did it, I’m going to demonstrate tonight to let you know how – so funny – to get recorded with one microphone. A band of about ten. One microphone, one guitar, you can imagine our songs, the drummers and everything with one microphone.
SB: How is that possible? Do you put the loud ones further away maybe?
KSA: That’s it. It’s always taking us time, almost 24 hours before we can make a record. They have to stop us and say “you move back a beat, you have to stay where you are, or if you have something to play stay where you are.” So funny.
SB: This is the 1960s with the Green Spots?
BE: Was that that song “Challenge Cup”, your first hit?
KSA: When I want to make a record I need one single and I want to make a record a hit record. How do I make a hit record? I don’t know. Then something came to my mind and I said “look, let me sing in praise of this particular club, they call them Adeba Jabeybes because they were organized by Chief Adebajo.
SB: And it’s a football club.
KSA: And it’s a football club. And I said to myself “I will make a record to praise them because they won the Challenge Cup.” Before they can play another Challenge Cup, they are going to keep that Cup for the next two years. So when they immediately won the Cup, I just sent a record in praise of them. So all the fans have to buy the record. So that’s my first hit.
BE: What year was that?
KSA: That was in 1969.
SB: That was very smart to go right there and say –
KSA: We are so lucky. Yes. Within two weeks they had sold more than 500,000.
SB: What did that fee like all of a sudden to go from, you know, just a regular musician to a star, what did that feel like?
KSA: It was confusing. I didn’t know where I was. I don’t allow anything to get in my head. I don’t want to be somebody who close the rode before you pass. I want to be a regular person. But when I get to the stage I want you and me to be happy – that’s my life. So when the great hit came, I didn’t know the difference, though, after three months I know the difference. Anywhere I played, the people, the people on the street, the people in the hall would be so full, outside would be full. The moment I tried to – sometimes I refused to play the song. Because that’s what everyone was waiting for. When I sing “Sunny Adé…” everybody would be singing it, singing it even though I changed the style they would go, just like the band would go this way, they would go this way, I have to leave it for them to sing it down. Then when I finished that I will now say “this is a new version.” When I sing the new version they will now sing the old fashioned again on their own.
BE: So that’s a big change in your life. Just like that.
KSA: Just like that. Just like that.
BE: That’s great. So when did it go from being the Green Spots to the African Beats?
KSA: Around ’73-’74, because we’ve been thinking to change the name before then we were being promoted by a cigarette company then. The cigarette was called Green Spot. And the name of my band is Green Spots. They intentionally took our band to promote Greens Spot cigarettes. I took Green Spots because I love I.K. Dairo – I.K. Dairo is I.K. Dairo and his Blue spots. So I took my Sunny Adé and his Green Spots. Now the Green Spot Cigarette company came to promote Green Spot cigarettes. And I don’t smoke. How will I promote a cigarette? So I intentionally changed the whole band name to the African Beats. And when the band broke off in 1985, then I changed to King Sunny Adé and his New African Beats.
SB: But when you went from Green Spots to African Beats it was not changing the music, it was just changing the name.
KSA: Only the name. Only the name.
BE: What are the big recourds, if you had to hit some of the high points along the way?
KSA: All my records are all hits. All. Honestly. If I am to be given a gold now – complete it should be 112 gold hits. None of my records – even the one I released last year in December has already gone to 100,000 now. And 150, 000 is gold…