“There are few artists in modern African music history that are at the same legendary status of King Sunny Adé,” said Par Neiburger, artistic director of the World Music Institute. “He can easily be mentioned in the same breath with artists such as Fela Kuti and Youssou N’Dour.”
Back in the early 1980s, when Nigerian master bandleader King Sunny Ade’s Juju Music first came to Western attention, rock critic Ken Barnes called Ade that year’s Ravi Shanker, a litmus taste for white liberal writers to prove they weren’t racists. I listened and I saw him, and I thought Ade’s tribal multi-percussionistic lofi dream sign was fine in short doses but over the long haul bored me senseless. That was in 1983, and I felt nearly exactly the same yesterday at Summerstage during his performance at the opening of the new season of the World Music Institute.
Ade is a handsome, charming leader of his 17 member band (though I only counted 13), half on percussion, he dances with his backup vocalists and moves across the stage with good humor and grace, speaks with the ease you expect from a decades long master of Nigerian music, which sounds like a sweeter version of just about all other African music. Unlike Ethiopian music, which is louder, faster and more soulful, it is a drifting sound with a tribal feel to it. And, to be perfectly honest, it puts me to sleep.
While opening act Orlando Julius, a major AfroPop performer and alto sax player since the 1960s, was a lot of fun who maintained your attention, Ade was perfect music to not pay attention to: with a friend on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I found myself doing the one thing I swore I never would do, and spoke through Ade’s set. The first three songs I was in the photographs pit and that close I really enjoyed Ade, watching him dance very well well and direct the percussion, the heart of the performance, with skilful good cheer, but as soon as I moved back to the Press bleachers I was lost.
Disconnecting from the performance, and not knowing the songs or the understanding the language, it worked as deep background, not loud enough to push me out of my inertia. Mentioned at the quote above in the same breath as Fela and N’Dour, the man is the Holy Ghost of World Music. Back in 1983, Mat Snow wrote in the New Musical Express “Interlocking layers of rhythmic patterns create a seamless loop which at one and the same time combines an unforced airy simplicity with a hugely complex range of inflection and texture. Against this background, voices, guitars and talking drums interact with each other to set up not just a call and response, but a whole conversation. Phrases are stated, repeated and improvised upon with relaxed fluidity and grace, yet never losing sight of the starting point.” Accurate but really, what it means is rhythm as internal trans vision, it moves like classical through phases (I am surprised Flying Lotus has not introduced him to Kendrick yet) and if your ears aren’t attuned you’re missing it. The guitar and keyboards are poking ephemeral melodies that I can’t quite grasp -they don’t catch my attention. The flutes (?) wind instruments, anything that holds the tune keeps it on the quiet side…
I lasted an hour and left, much like taking my medicine and now going off to play.
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