King Sunny Adé comes by his title fairly: a royal scion in his native Nigeria, he’s been a beneficient ruler on the world music scene for decades at this point. His infectious juju rhythms have captivated audiences across the globe, and while only a small fraction of his output is widely available outside Africa, just about everything he’s released is worth hearing. Unlike his late friend Fela Kuti, or many other African musicians, Adé never bound his art up with politics, though he has talked about witnessing awful violence and brutality during Nigeria’s periods of upheaval in the 1960s. Instead, he’s concentrated on spreading joy to every listener, and indeed it’s impossible to imagine anyone walking out of one of his concerts without a smile on his or her face.
Anyone who’s ever seen Adé live knows that the trilogy of early ’80s albums on Island (Juju Music, Synchro System and Aura), great as they were, didn’t really represent what the man was about, sonically. In his conception of rhythm as an ever-flowing stream, he has more in common with go-go acts like Trouble Funk or Chuck Brown’s Soul Searchers, songs drifting into and out of each other on an endless sea of liquid guitar lines, talking drums and call-and-response vocals. The 1990 performance I witnessed, at the now-defunct NYC club Kilimanjaro, lasted somewhere between four and eight hours—the concept of time lost all meaning eventually. But what impressed me even more than the pure, crystalline beauty of Adé’s voice or the interactions of his percussionists was how much rawer and more vital the music sounded than it had on the three Island records with which I was so intimately familiar. Even Synchro System, the second and most muscular of the trilogy, didn’t have the punch and drive of the live show.
The Classic Years compilations, of which this release is the second, are much closer in spirit to that Adé performance, which throbs vividly in my memory to this day. Culled from his early ’70s albums, four of the CD’s six tracks started life as full sides of vinyl albums–they’re medleys, each topping out at between 16 and just under 18 minutes. The other two, “Dele Davis” and “John Ali,” are about three minutes each—album cuts from the same era.
As with 2003’s Best Of The Classic Years, almost no information is provided about the tracks. In a way, this is annoying, because it seems to presume that the history of King Sunny Adé, or African music in general, is somehow less important than the history of country, jazz or blues, reissues of which come almost every day, each CD practically groaning under the weight of its portentous liner-note essays. But if one chooses to accentuate the positive, it’s possible to argue that listening to music whose origins are shrouded in mystery provides a joy similar to that offered by music sung in languages one does not speak—there’s a purity to the experience that’s unmediated by third-party commentary, or reflexive attempts at mental framing/categorization. My ignorance about who’s playing on these Adé tracks, or exactly when they were recorded, permits them to exist as pure music. Thus, their beauty comes into even sharper relief than it otherwise might.
And make no mistake, this is extraordinarily beautiful, joyous music. The near-18-minute opening medley, “Ori Mmi Maje N’te,” originally from Sunny Adé And His African Beats Vol. 11: Sunny Ti De, features a rougher, more distorted guitar tone than one might be used to from Adé. The rhythm is sparse, with only a few drummers and some hand-held percussion (shakers and the like) beneath and around the bassline and ringing, liquid guitar interplay. The next three tracks, each a long medley from one or another of the eponymous albums Adé released, first with the Green Spots and later with the African Beats, are similar in structure and feel. Each sets up a groove over which A