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POP : THE BEAT OF TRADITION : King Sunny Ade Stays Close to His Love--and Life--Nigeria’s Religious and Court Music

<i> Rick VanderKnyff is a member of the Times Orange County Edition staff. </i>

Buried in the press release announcing the new live album from King Sunny Ade is a line to chill the heart of any fan of African music: A few years ago, the Nigerian juju star was all but ready to retire.

Now, Ade laughs warmly when asked about it and says he’s sorry he ever mentioned it. Besides, he adds, it was only half-true: “I wanted to retire from the stage, but not from the music. But the people in Nigeria and all over the world didn’t want me even to do that.”

Chalk up a victory for the fan club. Ade has released some brilliant albums over his 30-year career, but it is on stage that his music really comes to life. His voice and guitar lead an 18-piece touring band--talking drums, pedal steel, keyboards, guitars, bass and more--through hypnotically percolating rhythms that build to considerable power.

One can only imagine what it would be like to hear him on his own turf, with his full orchestra of 52.

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“Everything I can think of, I get from my music,” he says. Recently, however, music has had to make room for a new interest. About five years ago Ade started making movies, writing, producing and directing films for Nigerian television and theatrical release.

He also has acted in some, but being in front of a camera is nothing new for Ade. He has been making music videos for 12 years, full-length projects that are sold in Nigerian stores alongside his albums. He also has acted in other people’s films, including one U.S. release, Robert Altman’s offbeat “O.C. and Stiggs,” filmed in 1984 but not released until ’87.

He says his new involvement in all aspects of film grew out of a national movement to provide Nigeria’s 120 million people with an alternative on TV and in theaters to the U.S. and European product that has dominated.

Ade believes that many of the imported films and TV shows are too violent. Just as his music draws from traditional sources, so do most of his films, relying on traditional African settings and themes. He considers it to be important work, and it was a desire to devote more time to it that led to his short-lived “retirement” announcement.

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But, as he says, he always intended to continue recording (he makes two studio albums a year in Nigeria) and making music videos. For Ade, life without music in some form is unimaginable. “It’s what I love most. It is part of my life.”

His love of music started early. In Nigeria, as in most of sub-Saharan Africa, music is more than entertainment; it is an integral part of daily life, “like sugar to your tea,” Ade says.

Growing up in the ‘60s, he heard some U.S. musicians, such as James Brown and B.B. King, and he professes an admiration to this day: “I love them and the way they sing, the way they handle their instruments.” But his inspiration and his model always has been juju music.

Juju is an extension of the Yoruba religious and court music that has been played in Africa for hundreds of years. Modern juju retains the rhythmic patterns and call-and-response vocals of pre-colonial times. The instrumentation has changed, first with the introduction of the acoustic guitar in the ‘30s and later with other alterations.

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“In my generation, we went from accordion to keyboards, from African violin to pedal steel, from African thumb piano to bass guitar,” Ade says.

Although such traditional rhythm instruments as talking drums and gourd shakers are used, drum kits and even electronic drums have been added. Modern juju was made complete by the introduction of electric guitar. Still, Ade insists that the music “sticks to the roots,” and he and most other juju musicians continue to sing in Yoruba.

The “King” in his name is no idle claim. Ade was born into royalty, which only complicated his decision to pursue a career in music. In grade school, he enlisted in a “boys’ brigade” band, playing school instruments. When he decided to drop out of school in 1963 to play music full time, he was terrified of his family’s reaction.

“It was very difficult for me to tell them I want to play. I was scared and afraid, so I ran away.” In fact, he ran more than 300 miles away; he told his family he was in university when actually he had changed his name (to his current moniker) and was playing in semi-professional juju bands in Lagos, the capital.

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He became so successful that his family saw his picture on a poster and tracked him down. But by then his decision was firm: “I don’t mind what people will do to me,” he told them. “I want to be a musician.” Eventually he won their approval. “Everything is OK now,” he says with a laugh.

In 1966, he formed his own band, calling it the Green Spots, a cheeky challenge to the leading juju band of the day, I.K. Dairo and the Blue Spots. As it turned out, Green Spot also was a cigarette brand, which led to some confusion. “I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, so we turned it into the African Beats,” Ade says.

By the ‘70s, Ade and Ebenezer Obey had eclipsed Dairo as the foremost practitioner of juju music in Nigeria (other forms popular there included “highlife,” a calypso-flavored, mostly horn-driven dance music, and “Afrobeat,” pioneered by the fiercely political Fela Anikulapo-Kuti).

Both Ade and Obey eventually were signed to major Western labels, but it was Ade who emerged as the prime international force. In the early ‘80s, it was predicted that he would do for African music what Bob Marley had done for reggae, and Island Records released two albums in the United States (“Juju Music” and “Synchro-System”) that remain the high points of his recorded output outside Nigeria.

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Although he built a loyal following with regular tours and became perhaps the best-known African pop musician of the decade, Ade never quite achieved the mainstream success in the United States that some had hoped for. For several years, his profile has been decidedly low. A tour announced earlier this year, which was to have been his first since 1990, was canceled abruptly. His recorded output since 1987 has been limited to a rarely played live album released three years ago by Rykodisc.

So his extensive current tour--some 50 dates--marks a welcome return. What’s more, I.R.S. has released a new live album, recorded in 1990 at the Palace in Hollywood. While he’s in the States, Ade is putting the finishing touches on a new studio album he recorded in Seattle and hopes to release here next year.

He is happy to be back on the road: “We’ve had beautiful, beautiful, nice audiences. All the time I’m glad.”

That he can be so glad at a time when Africa faces myriad problems (his own Nigeria has been paralyzed in recent weeks by widespread strikes aimed at the military government) indicates that King Sunny’s disposition lives up to his name. Ade always has stayed away from politics in his music, and said he is not about to change.

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“I just decided not to (write about politics), because if every musician is singing political songs, nobody is singing the other songs.”

His music concentrates instead on “sharing the happiness between me and the people, between the instrument and the player, the dancer and drummer. The major thing is the love. I want to say, let’s make friends today, because we may not have tomorrow.”

* Who: King Sunny Ade.

* When: Monday, Aug. 8. Groove Therapy opens the show at 8 p.m.

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* Where: The Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.

* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (5) Freeway to the San Juan Creek Road exit and turn left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Plaza.

* Wherewithal: $19.50.

* Where to call: (714) 496-8930.

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