Nigerian Band Exudes Warm, Gentle Feelings : Music: King Sunny Ade and his group, who will play in San Juan Capistrano tonight, brush aside stereotypical concepts and blend drums, voices and guitars into an exotic force.
What a difference Ade makes: Before the groundbreaking 1984 U.S. tour of King Sunny Ade and His African Beats, the American concept of African music was pretty much informed by jungle-movie images of guys jabbering and banging on logs, or by bongo-happy budget-label records with titles like “Savage Stereo Rhythms.”
All that was brushed aside by Ade’s tour, which showed his Nigerian juju music to be an entrancing and complex mesh of talking drums, voices, electric guitars and shimmering pedal steel guitar, all woven together in a rich concordance that might be about as close as music gets to representing the fabric of existence. The flowing interplay of his 20 or so musicians made the Grateful Dead seem like a lounge band.
More impressive than the freshness of the music was the warmth and gentle force of it, and even though Ade sang in his native Yoruba, his charisma was such that he was hailed in many quarters as the next Bob Marley. After the opening he forged for the music, a remarkably varied number of other African bands have had the opportunity to show their stuff here, receiving a big pump from Paul Simon’s South Africa-based “Graceland” album.
Since 1984, Ade has toured the United States enthusiastically, though the superstar fame predicted for him has yet to happen. His career has been hampered lately by the lack of an American label--he was dropped by Island Records, in part because he wouldn’t change his band makeup to fit the label’s idea of what he should be.
It isn’t that Ade needs the U.S. success. He is booked through 1994 in Nigeria, where he issues three albums a year, and each typically sells about 200,000 copies. Born a prince in the Ondo royal family, he’s none too poorly situated to begin with.
So what is it that impels him to tour the slow-waking States again?
“I think I am a messenger, the music is,” he said in his soft, accented English, politely fielding a phone interview from a closet in Austin’s cattle-shed-like Liberty Lunch club on a melting Texas afternoon.
“It is stretching out the hands of love, honesty and likeness to your friend. If you know you love your friends, why can’t you dance with him? If you love your partner, dance. In this time, to live to this age we need to rejoice. If possible, we dance with God if we can see him. You only have to listen to it to jump up and dance--that’s the kind of music we play. And that’s why we come here.”
The other key figure on the Nigerian music scene is Fela Kuti (who is coming to the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles on July 29), and the two are a contrast in philosophies of what music should convey. Where Fela is a political firebrand whose songs exhorting political change have led to his being jailed innumerable times (one long stint made him the subject of an Amnesty International action), Ade chiefly offers songs in praise of kindness and enjoyment.
“Fela is a politician and preaches political songs,” Ade said. “I don’t look at it that way. I preach the love, happiness and making people relax. If you go out to listen to political songs, it will linger on in your mind. But if you play my music after that, then you feel happy and then you can sleep and tomorrow are better able to think about the other things. I just believe that I want to play my kind of music for the people of the world to enjoy.”
But even without a politicized message, he believes that his music is a force for change.
“Music has its own language by the way it plays. Music is everything. I think music is the most powerful thing ever in the world. And it is the most extraordinarily easy way to catch people. You can listen to music better than you can to people talking to you. And you can get a message from the music easier than people teaching you what to do. The music is the mind of the people in this world today.
“Any country or any part of the world where the government doesn’t allow the music to play, you will find no people there. They will break the wall of their border to go to where there is music. You can imagine how powerful the music is: When the wall of Berlin was up, the musicians used to put their stage near to the wall, so that the other side of Germany would listen to their songs. And everybody would listen, and here today the wall of Germany has been broken and everybody now is mixing together.”
On the current tour, Ade has 17 other musicians with him. He has lost a few players to “indiscipline” over the years, but, compared to most Western groups, he has maintained a very consistent outfit.
“It’s like a job and like a family,” he said, “It’s our life, so we are all together all the time. I love my band. As I’m close to my members, eventually I’m close to their families as well. Every single one of us has our families and we have fans all over the world. We’re always close to people.
“I don’t know about here, but way back home it’s like you’re interested in the one particular music you’re playing. As a profession you take it as your daily job whereby you live with it. In our band we stretch out honesty to each other. I believe it is not only my band . . . 90% of African bands do the same thing, too.”
The economics of touring such a large outfit give the band very little time to really see the countries they visit. But Ade said he takes a special joy from his international tours.
“It is that I go throughout the whole world and play my music for them and they react to my music the same way they do back home,” he said, “so it makes me feel that people everywhere in the world, we have the ability to enjoy ourselves, to be happy with ourselves, that we can know one another. It is all like home.”
There is one thing, though, that sets his Nigerian gigs apart from the ones he plays here.
“We do not usually play so long here. It depends on what time the host or the hostesses want. We may play two, three or one hour, depending on the venue or festival. I did six or seven hours in Houston once, and almost 10 hours in New York one time.
“Generally at home it is like you have in discos here, except with bands, where the music starts at 8 and goes until 5 in the morning. In Nigeria we play long: as-long-as-you-can-dance long.”
King Sunny Ade and his African Beats play tonight at 8 p.m. at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $19.50. Information: (714) 496-8930.