A typical Omoba, as the Yoruba tribe of Western Nigeria will refer to man of royal birth, King Sunny Ade is everything an average human will wish to be, especially in the world of entertainment, which he so much dominated.
Born Sunday Adeniyi on September 22, 1946 King Sunny Adé as he is fondly called is a musician of high esteem and international repute. He is a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and a pioneer of modern world music, who has been classed as one of the most influential musicians of all time.
Adé, who assumed the pseudonym ‘King’ because of his prolific performances, was born to a church organist-father, while his mother was a trader. As a young school leaver, Sunny Ade left Ondo with the hope of going to the University of Lagos. However, in Lagos, his mercurial musical career started and blossomed, and seems to be the only occupation and profession the ebullient entertainer had known.
Sunny Adé’s musical career began with Moses Olaiya’s Federal Rhythm Dandies, a highlife band. When he left the band in 1967, he formed a new band called The Green Spots. Over the years, for various reasons ranging from changes in his music to business concerns, Sunny Adé’s band changed its name several times, first to African Beats and then to Golden Mercury.
In the 1970s and 1980s, he embarked on a tour of America and Europe, mesmerizing audiences wherever he performed with dexterous dancing steps and mastery of the guitar, which became a major characteristic of his stage act.
In 1982, after more than a decade of resounding success in Nigeria, Adé was received to great acclaim in Europe and North America. The global release of Juju Music and its accompanying tour was “almost unanimously embraced by critics (if not consumers) everywhere”.
His abilities were later to earn him a recognition as he was described in The New York Times’ as “one of the world’s great band leaders”, in Record as “a breath of fresh air, a positive vibration we will feel for some time to come” and in Trouser Press as “one of the most captivating and important musical artists anywhere in the world”.
His next album, Syncro System, released in 1983, followed the path of the earlier ones in success and earned him his first Grammy Award nomination in the folk/ethnic music category.
He is known to be an ardent user of notable musical instruments like the talking drum – an instrument indigenous to his Yoruba roots; the guitar and his peculiar application to jùjú music that would easily stand him out as first among equals.
His ability to blend his growing days with tradition of his Yoruba root, laden in the age-old tradition of singing poetic lyrics (“ewi” in Yoruba) and praise of dignitaries as well components of Juju (traditional African belief) called the Ogede (casting a spell), gave an added audacity required to make original sound. Hence, his music is a constituent of the oral tradition of his people for posterity. He can therefore, be called a culture preserver.
His ingenuity in the musical world led to the discovery and introduction of the pedal steel guitar to Nigerian pop music. He went further to introduce the use of synthesizers, clavinet, vibraphone, tenor guitar into the jùjú music repertoire such as dub and wah-wah guitar licks.
In his humility, King Sunny Adé said he used these instruments not as an attempt to innovate, but as a substitute for traditional jùjú instruments which were too difficult to find and/or impractical for touring. The pedal steel guitar, for instance, was added to his repertoire as a sound-alike for an African violin.
He connected the mind of international music listeners to the extent that after the death of Bob Marley, Island Records chose him as another third world artist to put on its contract. It was Producer Martin Meissonnier who introduced him to Chris Blackwell, leading to the release of Juju Music in 1982. Adé gained a wide following with this album and was soon reverred as “the African Bob Marley”.
At the time he fell apart with Island Records, Sunny Adé informed that it was his refusal to allow the record company meddle with his compositions and over-Europeanise and Americanise his music were the reasons why they decided to look elsewhere.
He is so open to music that he fits into any genre, and so was able to collaborate with major artists such as Manu Dibango (Wakafrika) and Stevie Wonder (played harmonica in Aura), as well as younger Nigerian artists such as Wasiu Alabi Pasuma and Bola Abimbola.
His brief recordings with Island Records opened the floodgates for other world music artists like Senegalese Youssou N’Dour, Mali’s Salif Keita and many others.
Not ready to quit, he summoned courage and continued, and in 1987, he returned to international spotlight when Rykodisc released a live concert he did in Seattle and was given an astonishing embrace by fans across the globe who were eager for another international album release.
He soon employed an American manager, Andrew Frankel, who negotiated another three album record deal with the Mesa record label (a division of Paradise Group) in America. One of these albums was 1988’s Odu, a collection of traditional Yoruba songs, for which he was nominated for the second Grammy Award and thus making him the first African to be nominated twice for a Grammy.
It must be noted that in the 1980s, being a versatile person, he tried his hands in Hollywood. His music was featured in the 1983 film Breathless, starring Richard Gere, and the 1986 comedy One More Saturday Night, and he acted in Robert Altman’s 1987 comedy O.C. and Stiggs.
Apart from being an international music icon, King Sunny Adé is also prominent in the local circle, running multiple companies in several industries, creating a non-profit organisation called the King Sunny Adé Foundation, and working with the Musical Copyright Society of Nigeria.
Even as hip hop music appears to hold sway in recent times, King Sunny Adé’s musical output has continued to inspire a vast generation of other Nigerian musicians, who believe in the big band musical set up which he represents. Lagbaja, the masked musician, is one of the very many musicians whom Sunny Adé’s music has inspired.
In 2008, his contributions to world music was recognised; as he was given an award for his outstanding contribution to world music at the International Reggae and World Music Awards held at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York.
At the beginning of another round of tour of the United States and Canada, Sunny Adé, now known as The Chairman, was appointed a visiting Professor of Music at the Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife.
He was subsequently inducted into the Afropop Hall of Fame, at the Brooklyn African Festival in the United States. He dedicated the award to the recently deceased Michael Jackson.
King Sunny Ade is married to a woman, who told everyone that cared to listen that she was already very much in love with him before he proposed. Her name is Queen Ahneva and they are blessed with children.
The music maestro, who is also known as Minister of Enjoyment has just clocked 70 years. Happy birthday sir, and enjoy the clamour of being our boss of the week. Congrats!