Talking to the King Part 2: An Interview with King Sunny Ade
In this edition of our 2-part interview with King Sunny Adé, Sean Barlow and Banning Eyre queries “The Chairman” about religion and spiritual practices in Nigeria, on his lengthy discography, the “sychro” sound, and the future of Juju.
SB: What about the song “Ogun?”
KSA: Ogun. That is the God of Iron I was telling you. You know I’m trying to find something to sing about and sell records. I love to hold onto the culture too. I actually don’t know I’m going to be coming to this part of the world. But I like to hold the heritage tight – not to deviate from the heritage. So I sang about Ogun, and I dressed like that on the picture. And the day of launching of the record I showed the people how to worship Ogun, because we know how to do it in our hometown once in a year. So once in a year its like Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Sometimes I believe that that is where they brought the Mardi Gras to New Orleans. You throw, you give people, sometimes you throw blues and chalk. If I know you now, I would throw chalk onto you. Disorganize your dress. And then you throw me a blue or any color, to make you sure you know me well. Sometimes I can dip my hand into the chalk, white chalk and wipe your face like this. Just mark it. Not to hit you though – mark your face. And then you say “thank you.” Then you go and put your hands in the blue and put it back to me. So that’s from the day, try the whole day.
SB: What is the song, what are the lyrics saying?
KSA: I said, in that song, : [Singing] “I wish I had known how I would’ve become the son of a blacksmith.” Because when he’s holding the fan, is always air: fino, fino, fino, fino, fino, fino, fino, fino. It is always in his mouth when he’s doing that. So anybody whose name it starts from Ogun, or Ogunaday, or Ogunwo or Ogunwomeyeh, Oguntaiyo, Ogunbehmi or like the generation of families to be under those names. So I know they’ll buy the records. And those Ogun worshipers will buy the records. It’s part of culture.
SB: In your music, philosophy and what you’re doing, you can include Yoruba Orisha tradition, as well as Christian and so on?
KSA: Yes I do, I do. The reason I don’t clash them, I don’t compare them to each other. I believe that God is the highest, he made all these things possible for man. It is for you to go where to you want to go, as long as you respect the highest. Whatever anything you do, you still call his name to it. So what’s what I used to sing. But now, my first face of my record I will praise god there. I will praise god. The other flip record, or on the other tracks I can sing anything, any song I can sing. Whatever anything you believe that is your god, please pray to it very well, and don’t allow your neighbor suffer. Or don’t impose it to another person. You can share with them if need be, if he agrees, but not by force. It’s like, the Muslims, the Pagans, the Christians, they’re supposed to live together. When you got mosque you say “bye-bye;” when you go to church you say “bye-bye;” I believe that’s the reason why on Fridays Muslims go to mosque, in general, and then on Sundays Christians go to church. And on the weekdays all the other believers go to theirs – so there’s no fight, and there’s supposed to be no fight.
BE: For some people its not so easy there, right? They see it as they have to choose between Yoruba religions, say, and Christianity. For some people do they feel that way?
KSA: No, no, no, no. No. In the Yoruba land we have Muslims we have pagans we have Christians. In the north we have Christians, we have that. Unlike recently, that there’s the clashes. You know, during the clashes, there are some people who used to create that. They were neither Christians or Muslims, they are politicians. They are politicians. Probably, they campaign in some areas – they refuse to vote for him or her, and put some money in there and tell them to be fighting with each other.
BE: It’s about politics, not about religion.
SB: Fighting over territory and power.
KSA: What is the need, by now, there is a church somewhere that stood there for 50 years and you now go there to burn it now. What is the difference? Why, why, by this time? Then there’s a mosque here. It has been here. When they started building the mosque, everybody knew it was the mosque. When they finished they started worshiping there, we all know it’s a mosque. So why will you now go and burn the mosque because it’s close to church? But why now this time, if it is not politics? Because the tribal war is over – now the politics. That’s why I used to sing that, “look, whatever anything you do in Nigeria, [even if] we must leave this country, no [matter] where we go, we are still Nigerians, and nobody will take [that from] us.” This is our country, we must respect this country. That was when the tension was so high – during that part of time – I made that record with about forty artists joined together to make it.
SB: What was the name of that album?
KSA: We called the album: The Way Forward. The way forward. We sing not only in Yoruba, but in all the different languages of Nigeria, all in one album. So that whenever there’s any bit of tension somewhere, the labor wants to strike, all the radios and television will be playing it.
BE: There was a set of records, a lot ‘80s stuff that came out – Master Disc or something, there was like 6 records?
KSA: They all came in vinyl. I really want to start from the beginning on these classics. But unfortunately, my former label started releasing the albums out now, so I have to sue them in court. That’s why I went to Tower Records now, today. They had all of King Sunny Adé’s music there – I bought all. All that I saw.
SB: You mean there were things released…
KSA: There were some released with out my consent. Tower is a genuine company that says what is right. But where they got it from is whom I want to deal with. It’s not Tower. I will just show them I bought it at tower. At Tower, they have addresses there, you are the one who sold to Tower. So I don’t have any deal with Tower Records except when it goes to court and Tower will come and testify – that is other people.
SB: The Synchro System was… that came, what year was that?
KSA: Syncro System should be 1972. Between ’71 and ’72. Then we recorded again in 1983 or ’84. For Island Records, yes.
SB: Tell us about the first time you recorded Synchro System.
KSA: Synchro System is more or less like – when music is like — they know me with my guitaring style – my guitar. I wanted to find a system for myself – this is a kind of system I play, because we all play Juju music. And Juju music of Sunny Adé is quite different to Ebenezer Obe’s. Ebenezer Obe’s is quite different to Shina Peters. Shina Peter’s music is different to Olando Wohu. Olando Wohu is quite different to Ambrose Campbell. Ambrose Campbell is different to I.K. Dairo. I.K. Dairo is different to Odjugae Daniel. Odjugae Daniel is different to Andy Bakai. Andy Bakai is quite different to Nightingale. All of this! All of us, we are under the canopy of Juju music. So what do I call my system? This is Owambe, this is Meliki, this Owadowa, this Acheku, this is this and that, I have to sit down and say look. I should sit down and think straight and think what kind of system I am going to have. Then a lawyer, who happens to be my fanatic fan, I just told him, I said, “I’m looking, searching for a system to be called, and then my music to be called.” Then he said, “I got one! You know your music is well synchromatic all the time.” I said, “Okay, let me to take ‘synchro.’” “Okay.” I said, “I got it.” So I’m playing synchromatic system. Because on that last record I said, “let’s dance, this music you hear is called synchromatic system. I’ll show you how to dance to it.”
But in this Island Record, we jack it up a bit – high tempo – and ‘Synchro System’ is what we told them. Already the music is synchromatic, so the system is synchro—we don’t’ want to call it synchronized system, we just call it synchro. It’s sorta like when you say micro it’s either you put ‘wave’ into it or micro-something. The whole thing is micro. That’s why.
SB: But ‘Synchromatic,’ what does that mean?
KSA: It’s something that’s really, really together. The synch, that’s really smooth, really unique.
BE: I’m interested in that time when all these different groups are there and everyone’s trying to find something to be real identity. And it was in that time that you first had the pedal steel guitar, right? How did that come in? Tell me the story of how that came your band’s thing.
KSA: I try to change – you know, I don’t’ just introduce anything to the band just like that. I will go and see what my ancestors have introduced. Then I will say, “Okay. I think not to deviate from the line of the ancestors.” I’m looking toward [what] they have introduced. And I say to myself, “something missing. This African violin is missing in this Juju music. What will I do?” And I said, “Okay, I use guitar to play something like that,” until one day in London, and I saw the real pedal steel. And I said, “Okay, this is what is called pedal steel?” and I said, “Can you play it?” So the guy plays a little bit and I said “That’s enough. That’s what I want to get.” I bought it. I took it back home. And I called, and I call Demola Adepujo I call him to come. He saw it. He plays on a guitar before. When he saw this he said “Oh, we are no on this.” So I began to realize, realize very well on that night at the nightclub. I told everybody, “I have a new thing for you tonight, and that’s all.” I didn’t tell them what I wanted for them… and when the guitar started, [pedal steel noises] it’s a different thing entirely.
SB: And it was a big hit? People liked it?
KSA: Yes, Yes.
BE: What year was that?
KSA: That was in…1979.
SB: That’s a great sound.
KSA: So we recorded again.
KSA: Yes. For Alan, 1983. ’83, ’84.
BE: That’s that song that they introduced in…
BE: And what was the name of that song?
KSA: “Juju Music.” And the album Juju Music.
SB: And the guy, the musician today who plays pedal steel, what’s his name?
KSA: No, that one has left.
SB: But this one.
BE: Fatokeh, right.
KSA: Pierdon, Fotokeh.
SB: He’s very good.
BE: Oh, He does a fine job.
KSA: He’s a percussionist too.
BE: Yea, I saw that. He was going back and forth.
KSA: Yes, yes.
BE: So if it we look at—I mean it seems to me if I think of anything that might have changed in your music when we first heard it in the early eighties, it seems like the percussion is a more—more forward now. Maybe it’s a little more percussion, then it was then, maybe it was a little more guitar back in those days. But if you were to look at how your stream of Juju music has changed and maybe what your legacy is in Juju music, what would you say it is? What’s your legacy to this music?
KSA: Well I can only say that I am one of that pioneers, that’s all. That’s what I believe that is going to build the legacy. I am the pioneer, one of the pioneers, who make Juju music to be to the whole world, known to the whole world. Well, before I go they have been saying that, so eventually, that’s a legacy. That I really doesn’t change the line of the ancestors like I.K. Dairo—Odjugae Daniel introduced a big accordion. But I.K. Dairo introduced the smaller one – really, really cute. And for me to introduce accordion—instead of accordion, I introduced a keyboard. I’m still on the same line. So he plays big drum, bass drum. I don’t use bass drum, I use kick drum—still have the kick, but louder than before. So, he introduced the samba drum. I use emileh instead. That’s some small drums… So my system introduced thumb piano to play bass, I don’t use that. I used bass guitar. I’m still on the line. They normally sing in chorus, one microphone, with about 4 – 8 chorus. But now I distribute microphones for each everybody. So I’m still on the same line, so I didn’t change anything.
BE: When we first heard you, in the early 80s, the time of the Island Records, it had a big effect in this country, as you know. I mean, Afropop was really born out of this experience. And now we have this big thing everything talks about, “World Music,” you know? It seems to me, you told us the last time we talked the story about Island Records and how they became more and more wanting to change things and be involved in production, and then they played you something that they had remixed and you didn’t find yourself in it. And at that point you parted ways with them, and it seems to me that you really went back to that line that you talked about. And I was thinking about this last night and, “Boy, you know, King Sunny Adé, he changed world music, but world music didn’t change King Sunny Adé.”
KSA: You’re right.
BE: You think that’s true?
KSA: That’s the world. Along the line, this is the music I inherited from my ancestors. If anybody want to make use, I mean want to do something to it, to suit some other people in another part of the world, we must look at it and see what is happening. But if it is music, because I have seen some music and musicians that change the music, they change their music, they even change themselves. They change the musician, which is not supposed to be. We must not forget where we come from. My intention is to bring my music over here, play for people, enjoy ourselves and I go back home. But some musicians come from home, bring their music over here and they change it from them and at the end of the day it doesn’t go again. So coming back home, they can’t do it again. So I don’t want that. I appreciate if they can develop what I give to them. I appreciate that. When the music came back, when they took it, the masters, they took the multi-track, the multi-track is still with them. Say a producer comes and change something then I say to myself “Whose music is this?” I said, “That’s your music.” Ah no, that’s not my music. And I said if we cannot do anything with it, so they cannot take my option…
BE: Is that the record Aura, or is that another record?
KSA: That is a two inch tape with them.
BE: Oh, this is a record that never—
KSA: Any of my releases with them. So if any producer is coming, I said, “Take that as if it’s a new record – see what you can do to it.” So they went with it and they came back with a new thing of my music—I don’t see my music the way it’s supposed to be.
BE: So that never got released.
KSA: No. So they said they cannot do if I don’t allow them to do it. So I said, “Thank you.” There’s no fight. Like a Yoruba proverb used to say, “Don’t enter my house again, but the one that I have already let enter, you will still let me out. The next time I won’t come. But when I’m in already, in your house already and you are telling me, ‘Don’t come to my house again,’ I say, ‘Thank you, but let me out first.’” That’s the proverb.
SB: Speaking of legacy and your future and so on, are there new, young Juju musicians following your footsteps?
KSA: Oh yes. A lot of them. They’re coming. I have to advise them. If they can follow the way I do, they should think twice. It may be good for them. You cannot tell them it’s going to be good for them, it may not be their own luck, but I tried my luck and it worked for me. But is it for me to advise? You see, if you want to play Juju music, pick one and play it the way it is, not that you pick Juju music and you tell the rapper to come and rap on it and tell this one to come and do this on it, and you put this and that and then they’ll say, “What music is this?” You can’t say it’s Juju music. So if you want to play Juju music, play Juju music.
BE: Don’t change it to much.
KSA: Don’t change too much, yes.
SB: How have you all these years, it’s amazing, artists come and artists go, but how have you been able to stay on top of the music game in Nigeria all these years and everything.
KSA: I would only say that I’m lucky. I’m lucky. That’s the only way I can say. The rest is like I always ready for any eventuality as long I’m still alive and love this music, I’ll continue to do it. So, from any trouble zone or any whatever, when it is over, I’ll still play music. That’s the way I look at it.
SB: I think you’re more than lucky. You’re good at what you do.
KSA: Because why I said I’m lucky is part of—I’m just wondering, what would have been the matter in those days when they want to do two million march for the late General Obuju and I was invited to come and play there and I didn’t show up. If he would have been alive now, where would I’ve been? Where will I be? So it’s part of my luck… Anything can happen – if he’s not dead.
BE: It was right at the time when he died you were invited?
KSA: No. He was there when he was alive. And when the people are saying, “Are you with going to stay or are you going for civilian rule?” He didn’t say yes or no. And by that time there was a group that launched 2 Million March. Then people come to me, and Captain Obuju, to come along, that “ohh, you love this guy, you love this guy.” A bulk of the musicians gone there that had been invited. But I didn’t do it. Well I know if he is alive, if he didn’t die and was still there now—
BE: He wouldn’t like you.
KSA: At all.
BE & SB: You took a chance.
KSA: I like him dead…
BE: Andy [Frankel] said you have this great place in Ondo now, that’s kind of a bit away from the city. What’s it like there, what’s your life like there?
KSA: It’s a different life I love most. All my life, I’m such a someone who—I like something quiet. I always like to be myself and think about, because the whole world is always like a problem, the whole problem of the world is like it’s on my neck—that’s the way I used to feel. You know, seeing kids not really taken care of, here is wars, over here and there, people killing each other. You know, sometimes it gets me down, you say “What the hell is this? Why are we doing all of this?” Gradually I made a promise to myself, before the age of sixty, I want to be stretching my legs back home, my home town, where I hail from. I don’t want to be too old before I get back home and I say, “Ahh, how are you? I wish were here when you were sixty, it could have helped you. But now you were old…” I’ve been thinking about that. So I said to myself, “It’s time for me to go back home, yeah.” I’m still in Lagos, all my business is in Lagos. But when I go, it’s like a country home. When I go there it’s like off, totally.
SB: When you’re not doing music, what do you do?
KSA: Well, I believe that if I don’t do family, I would just have to be myself. I play in the studio, play music, whatever… maybe just walking. If I don’t play music now, it’s like I’ve been chained. If I happen to build a farm I would like to have my stage in the farm, have everything in the farm when I feel like to bring my friends to the farm, after drinking palmwine and everything we’ll play music.
See spectacular photos and reportage from King Sunny Adé & Prince Obi’s “African Ball” performance in New York City.
View part 1 of our interview with King Sunny Adé.