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World Music Legends

King Sunny Adé

By Chris Nickson
Published October 9, 2005


It’s all about the juju. And if there’s one person who’s made juju music known internationally, it’s King Sunny Adé. Once the heir to the world music mantle of Bob Marley, he’s perhaps Nigeria’s most important export after its oil.

            By the time he was born into a royal family in the Yoruba tribe in 1946, the sound of juju was starting to firmly coalesce. Its roots were in the laid-back palm-wine music of Sierra Leone and Ghana, but it would be the 1950s before it became a definitive sound in the hands of the legendary I.K. Dairo, M.B.E., who brought electric guitar and accordion into the mix and gave modern juju its basic sound.

            And that was a sound that attracted Adé. The son of a Methodist minister, he started off playing percussion in church, then dropped out of school long before graduation and made his way to Lagos, where he began playing guitar in highlife bands (the highlife sound dominated Nigerian music at the time), before joining the Rhythm Dandies.

            But juju was the future, and in 1966 he formed his first band, the Green Spots (in emulation of Dairo’s Blue Spots). Influenced not only by Dairo, but also Tunde Nightingale, they recorded 12 albums in eight years (and scored a huge Nigerian hit single with a song in praise of Stationery Stores soccer club), before contractual problems led him to form his own label and change the name of the group to the African Beats.

            As the young lion of juju, Adé pulled his ideas from many sources, including Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat—in fact, he lured tenor guitarist Sonny Ohiri from Kuti’s band. His music became more rhythmic, and pushing ever outward. His main competitor at the time was Ebenezer “Chief Commander” Obey, and the two constantly tried to outdo each other with new sounds, bringing in synthesizers, more guitars and percussion and, in Adé’s case, adding the pedal steel guitar that would become a trademark of his music. All that, of course, meant more musicians on stage, until it reached a point where the membership of the African Beats reached around 30 people.

            It also meant plenty of musical experimentation, and Adé’s records from the ’70s were glorious things indeed, taking chances with music and rhythm, stretching out. And it paid off. In 1977 Sunny Adé officially received his crown as the King of juju music.


Recommended Listening


The Best Of The Classic Years (Shanachie)

Juju Music (Island)

Synchro Series (Indigedisc)