Interview with King Sunny Ade at Barcelona, Spain



Cosmik: For our readers who are just learning about you for the first time, would you mind describing what Juju music is?

KSA: Juju music is a happy music created by my ancestors, in the 20s on the western side of Nigeria, who were called the Yoruba tribe. They collected different sounds and different instruments from different tribes. It’s happy music for pleasure, for enjoyment and for education.

Cosmik: And this is different from High-Life music, which is what you used to play and what was hugely popular in Nigeria in the 60s and 70s. What about High-Life? What is it?

KSA: High-Life is a piece of music that has multiple horns, they have trap drums… it’s like a jazz music, but very danceable. Serious jazz music you can’t dance to, you have to sit down and listen. You can sing the way the traditional musicians used to sing when you play High-Life. It’s music created by my ancestors from throughout west Africa.

Cosmik: Who are some of the important performers of Juju that you’d recommend?

KSA: Before me, there was Ambross Cambell, and of course I.K. Dairo.

Cosmik: And Dairo’s considered by most to be the father of juju music.

[Pictured: I.K. Dairo]

KSA: Yes. And also you have Ayinde Bakare. They are the pioneers, but only a few of their records have been heard on the western side of the world. There are also people like Tunde King they should hear. There are many like that.

Cosmik: Do you feel a common thread between all African music? Soukous, reggae, juju?

KSA: Yes, we have one thing in common, which is the bass drum. It’s found throughout the whole north, west, east and south of Africa. It’s the beat, like [demonstrates a steady pulsing beat]. It is the one thing that combines every African music together. Also, we have what is called African Blues together. It is like rhythm and blues, and it is all over Africa. Soukous, juju music, highlife, reggae, they are different creations from different people, but all have a bond, all hail from Africa.

Cosmik: And of course each speaks of the African experience.

KSA: Definitely.

Cosmik: How has your own music evolved?

KSA: My own music has changed in the rhythms, and instrumentation. There are talking drums and congas, and I have the pedal steel [guitar], now the big and small talking drums, the agoggo, shaker and maracas, then I’ve now introduced the keyboard and multiple guitars. Before that, I created my own sound from the music of people like I.K. Dairo and Tunde King, and a number of people. They introduced the accordion to juju music. Instead of accordion, I changed it to keyboard. Instead of a bass drum, I introduced the kick of the trap drum [meaning modern drum set]. Instead of the African violin, I introduced the pedal steel guitar.

Cosmik: You replaced sounds with similar sounds, but whole new textures.

KSA: Yes, the pedal steel picked up the sound of the African violin. Then I electrified the talking drums, the big and the smaller one. Most people play the little one or the big one, but I electrified them and combined the two to make my kind of music.

Cosmik: Pedal steel guitar is traditionally an American country music instrument. What made you think to incorporate that into juju music?

KSA: Well, I had been trying to find a replacement where I can get the African guitar, which is called a goj. I’d been trying to electrify it without having a microphone to it, but I couldn’t find the [sound] until one night I had the music of Jim Reeves playing, and also Don Williams, which is country music. I said “okay, let me check [into] this country music.” The way I played it I was able to find the tone of the African guitar in it, so I said “okay, if that’s the case, let me introduce it.” So I introduced it, but I played it in the dancing rhythms instead of playing it as country music. I introduced the rhythm of the pedal steel, and it fits me.

Cosmik: Were you surprised by how it took on its own sound, independent of country music, when you played it in your own music?

KSA: I would say I was surprised, but before I recorded it on an album I had played it at home for almost a year. My fans all loved it. And then I recorded it. The surprise, I would say, is that the people listened to it and loved it by way of finding the rhythm of it.

Cosmik: It’s a totally different sound than I would have expected.

KSA: Because in country music it’s slow like [imitates a mournful, slow, sliding country melody that is one continuous sound], but in my music it’s [imitates a faster, segmented rhythmic melody]. I changed it to a dance rhythm that is hot-hot, mid-tempo or high-tempo so I can get the feeling of the African tune from it.

Cosmik: It’s beautiful, too. It works so well in your music. Let’s talk about your new album, Seven Degrees North. It’s a very peaceful, spiritual album, and there’s also a feeling of excitement to it. I’m wondering if those feelings reflects the mood in Nigeria at this time, now that the military dictatorship is history.

KSA: Yes, because by now we are like students that have just stepped into a new class, and the teacher has to tell them what to do. Democracy is something that we have to start by practicing it as long as we are learning how to do it. I look at it this way: from the military to the civilian life, the difference is that the civilians must be more or less patient while the military man is militant.

Cosmik: And that may be something that’s hard to turn off.

KSA: Yes, but the civilians who were not in the military were not forced to be doing those kinds of activities, and they must remain calm. The two of them are not together. In Seven Degrees North, it is a chit-chat telling you that we have to mellow, that we have to concentrate, and hopefully your mind can listen. Democracy is something we just started practicing in Nigeria, so we have to sit down and see what we can do. It’s an entirely new life in Nigeria.

Cosmik: So the album is meant to be a soothing thing for the people, as well as information.

KSA: Yes, to say not just to the people of Nigeria but also to America that we are a democracy, but we are only one year old, where America is more than two hundred years old. We are like in kindergarten. Elementary school. We need the whole world to know that. We need to listen to them and they need to listen to us, because we want to be the friends of all the people of the world.

Cosmik: A lot of the music on Seven Degrees North seems to be a celebration of that learning experience, of learning to be a democracy or, more specifically, of learning to be free.

KSA: Oh, definitely. There is much celebration in it. But not just celebration. When you are in a class, there is time for pleasure, there is a time for seriousness, and there is time for calming down and thinking. And there is time for relaxation. That is how the album is, and that’s how it is for everyone all over the world. Even in your house, there is a time to play with your kids, time where you are serious, whether you are reading or writing, times you want to watch your TV, times you want to sleep, and there must be times when you are working. That’s how the album is.

Cosmik: It covers it all. I love the spirituality of the music. There’s a lot of conviction in it, and it’s even in the liner notes where you implore people to learn about Africa and to support African artists. You take your role as a musical African ambassador very seriously, don’t you?

KSA: I would just say that I wanted to be one of the pioneers, to be there for the younger ones who come up, for the other ones who have not been privileged to become known. This is the reason why I do that. I am an opportunist. When I came to music, I didn’t know I would be known this way, and when I came to the western world, I didn’t know I would be known this way. I said “well, since they love my music, I don’t want to be greedy. I shall allow other people to come this way.” And I know the more you see other people, the more you’ll like this music. That’s the way I look at it.

Cosmik: Wonderful way of looking at it. What would you like to say to people in America, and elsewhere, who are just getting interested in your music? What would you like them to pay attention to?

KSA: First of all, my music is a music that, when they listen, they may not know my language. But they can read the language.

Cosmik: Ah, yes, in the liner notes. That’s something I really appreciate. You have two side-by-side versions of the lyrics to each song in most of your CD liner notes, so people can read your language and see what it means in English.

[Photo by Tim Owen]

KSA: They can read their language and they can hear my language in the [recorded] music itself. And also, I would like to thank every single soul who listens to my music. I want them to keep on listening, because the more they listen, the more they will love the music.

Cosmik: The album was recorded in the United States. Have you recorded here many times? Of course you’ve recorded many times, period! (Laughs)

KSA: Yes. (Laughs.) This is my one hundred and eleventh album.

Cosmik: That’s unbelievable.

KSA: In Nigeria, I just released another album, which is number one hundred and twelve.

Cosmik: I missed that one, somehow. When was that?

KSA: About two weeks ago. It’s called Kool Samba. In Nigeria, my albums are always non-stop. All the tracks are mixed together like a disco.

Cosmik: Like a mega-mix?

KSA: Ah, yes, you’re right. Just like that. They change songs without stopping the tracks. Seven Degrees North has fifteen tracks, separate because you have to have different tracks for different things, like radio play. But in Nigeria, they love for me to combine it into one track.

Cosmik: I wish there was a way for us to get those records here in the west.

KSA: We’re just together now with my record company over here, and they want to see what they can do to do that.

Cosmik: How do you feel about recording in America as opposed to recording in Africa? Are you as happy with the results?

KSA: I’m happy both ways. I know when I’m at home, I do what is happening there, and when I’m here I do what is happening here. The recording studios in America are very different, the way [things are done]. And what we can do is different. For instance, if we record in America, we can only be 20 or 22 people. But if we record in Nigeria, we can come with 52. In America, we will overdub to make up the difference. In Nigeria, every single member has his own role to play, so nobody has to overdub.

Cosmik: So you get more of your full orchestra-type sound in Nigeria.

KSA: Ah, yes, but when you’re talking about very good sound, and quality time, then we would cut the record in America. Also, in America we cut one track at a time, but in Nigeria we have to record the whole thing at a stretch. Then we may overdub if we need to, and the whole thing will be done in a few days. In America, you have to take your time.

Cosmik: I’m curious about some of the other hats you wear, because you wear more than just about anyone I’ve ever talked to. Tell me about the PMAN [Performing Musician’s Association of Nigeria]. What is the organization all about?

KSA: It is like the Musician’s Union in America.

Cosmik: And you’ve been elected president. That’s quite a responsibility. How many members?

KSA: As of right now, we have over five thousand leaders of the groups, and under them we have over fifty thousand.

Cosmik: What’s the agenda?

[Photo by Tim Owen]

KSA: We have been having a musician’s union, but they were not together. Now we’re getting everyone together into one. I was the first president in 1982, and now I’ve been elected president again in 1999, so I’m going to be there for the next three years.

Cosmik: What’s the work load like?

KSA: It’s a big load, because at the moment we are fighting the piracy, which we believe is harming our musicians and their work. We are together to make sure the Federal Government of Nigeria gives us protection on our work. We have an appeal now to the house of assembly to look into the matter of royalties, protection and copyright law, and also the cultural side, which has to be protected.

Cosmik: When you say the cultural side has to be protected, what do you mean, exactly?

KSA: For instance if you make some music, you own that music no matter what they use that music for. If it goes into a drama, if it is used in a cultural display or whatever, it is heard and used by all the people, but it is protected.

Cosmik: With a work load like you have, touring, recording, businesses, PMAN and everything else, how does it all affect your music? How can you handle all this at once and still make such high quality music?

KSA: I have very good managers. All I have to do is look at [a situation] and tell them what to do. I’m so lucky to have so many good friends that happen to be my staff, and they’re doing the work for me very well. And I’m continually rescheduling my time. I do play my music three or four times in a week, and that is enough for me. In the morning, I go to the office, and in the evening I work at a show, so I have a little time to sleep. And I concentrate very much on music and on band business. But yes, you are right, it is a very big work load.

Cosmik: Let’s see if I have it all right… You’re the president of PMAN, a VERY busy musician, whether it’s an official position or not you are a musical ambassador, you’re running several business ventures. Do you ever foresee a time where you’ll be able to catch your breath and say “okay, I can rest now?”

KSA: [Laughing] I do! While you’re doing this interview, I’m having my food.

Cosmik: Yeah, but ya know, to most of us that’s not “taking it easy.”

KSA: I enjoy what I do, and I don’t regret it because I love it.

Cosmik: And you’re doing important things all around.

KSA: Yes sir.

Cosmik: No regrets?

KSA: I would say I thank God that I am what I am today, and I also thank all the people around me that made me succeed, and all the good people I work with who never allow me to regret all we have [done].

Cosmik: You’ve observed a lot in your career, watching Nigeria go from military rule to democracy, seeing the whole world changing around you, really. How do you feel about the way the world is turning these days?

KSA: The way I look at the world is that it’s for you to do your best, and leave the rest. And I believe that the future will be better, because the whole world is getting better and better, though we complain. Now I am talking to you on the phone. Do you know how many miles I am from you? Yet I am talking to you clearly on a cellular phone, without wires, without anything. The world becomes smaller and people closer, and the world gets better and better. Today, not everybody is interested in creating war. The number of places of war is less.

Cosmik: It’s becoming even less logical to wage war.

[Photo by Tim Owen]

KSA: Yes, different countries are getting together now because they don’t want to fight, and they don’t want another nuclear bomb, they don’t want nothing like that, and eventually the entire world will be at peace.

Cosmik: A time of enlightenment.

KSA: Yes, and if the enlightenment is there then everything is going to be better. That’s the way I look at it. And when I look at it from Nigeria, Africa, I believe that Nigeria will be all right.

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