After Bob Marley's death in 1981, Island Records was keen on signing another international black artist whose appeal would slice across ethnic and cultural boundaries. Rather than plucking a reggae act from Jamaica's seemingly limitless talent pool, Island made an unlikely choice from Nigeria instead. King Sunny Ade appeared to have momentum on his side. By age 25, he had already released around 40 LPs in West Africa, establishing himself as the reigning force in a musical style known as juju, which combined elements of highlife with traditional Yoruban drumming. Ade and his band African Beats had modernized the bucolic juju sound by getting rid of the accordion and adding pedal steel guitar plus multilayered electric guitar. Talking Heads' Remain in Light owed a debt to him while Peter Gabriel, the English Beat, and other Western bands were also hopping on the African music bandwagon.
Ade proved extremely popular in Europe, where Nigerian Afrobeat inventor Fela Anikulapo Kuti and veteran Congolese rumba innovator Franco also found large audiences. But Ade turned out to be a tough sell in the less cosmopolitan American market. Bob Marley's lyrics about black consciousness and funkified reggae arrangements had spoken to the hipsters as well as to the hips. Ade's oeuvre mystified many listeners. "Ja Funmi" (or "Fight for Me"), the languid opening cut on his Island Records debut Juju Music, was built around Yoruban proverbs that were so difficult to translate into English the label didn't even bother. "Because the Blue Touraco's head fights for the Blue Touraco, the head of the Aluko bird fights," Ade sang in Yoruban at the beginning of "Ja Funmi." "They tried to encircle the Mahogany bean tree, they couldn't reach around the Mahogany bean tree." Emotionally speaking, this complex song about malevolent forces lurking behind commonplace events was hardly on a par with Marley's more direct "Get up! Stand up! Stand up for your rights!"
Ade's arrangements were problematic, too. They had to be drastically altered to suit Western tastes. Songs that had consumed an entire album side in their Nigerian incarnations were trimmed to sparer versions that emphasized Ade's bell-like guitar chords while French producer Martin Meissonnier added keyboards and reggae-influenced dub effects to spice up the mix. The tinkering should have resulted in a mess. Instead Juju Music was widely regarded as a masterpiece and still stands as a landmark of African pop invention for its charismatic distillation of a Nigerian style with familiar reggae elements. Sales were disappointing, though. By Ade's third album, 1984's Aura, Island had enlisted Stevie Wonder to add harmonica to one of its tracks, "Ase," while Ade and Meissonnier experimented with proto hip-hop rhythms. Because Aura's cutting-edge songs blended poorly with its more traditional Yoruban-based pieces, it ended up sounding more foreign than his other American LPs.
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Despite overwhelming critical acclaim for the Nigerian bandleader, Island dumped the King in 1984. He remained without an American label until 1994, when he first signed with EMI subsidiary IRS for a live CD, then in 1995 with Mesa/Bluemoon for a succession of studio releases.
If King Sunny's first and last LPs for Island were artistic heavy hitters, the middle disc, 1983's Synchro System, felt haphazard and incomplete. "E Saiye Re" showed the direction the album might have taken with flinty guitar rhythms that recalled Chic's Nile Rodgers, gentle yet insistent percussion, and a gorgeous, ghostly pedal steel guitar solo by Demola Adepoju. The song was a model of economy at odds with a rambling album structure. And the title itself was baffling: Nothing lived up to its bold promise of a system, and the meaning of "synchro" was never explained. Disc opener "Synchro Feelings - Ilako" could have been a Juju Music outtake, "Synchro System" relied on a growling synthesizer groove and a few dub effects, and true to its name, disc closer "Synchro Reprise" was merely a "Synchro" reprise. Something was definitely missing.
King Sunny Ade -- The Best of the Classic Years, a new release on the Shanachie label, clears up the mystery twenty years later by revealing a system worthy of the title. The Seventies' Nigerian version of "Synchro System" boasts an impressive eighteen-minute length and a minimalism that seems more akin to German art band Kraftwerk than to any West African music of Ade's day. It's as bold as the 1982 American and Nigerian renditions were tame, hitching its sound to a stuck-note guitar riff that suggests a locked groove on a first-generation sequencer, while acres of empty space allow Ade's trippy vocals oodles of room to bounce around in. In Yoruban he boasts, "Synchro, Synchro System, we have thrown away yesterday's thing, oh, we have finally brought a new one," even though nothing else on this compilation of tracks from 1967 to 1974 embraces its odd gestalt. "Sunny Ti De," a five-cut cluster of tracks that opens Classic Years, is a feast of reverb-drenched guitars, boiling drums, Ade's instantly recognizable nasal voice leading a peppy chorus, and a beat that won't give up. The shorter "Ibanuje Mon Iwon" clocks in at a mere 9:28, according to the track listing, but don't you believe it. A pair of electric guitars rings back and forth for almost thirteen minutes, ebbing and flowing to an appealing laid-back rhythm evocative of Congolese rumba.
Essentially recorded live to tape, the tracks on Classic Years testify how Sunny sounded raw and uncooked, free from the studio manipulation that shaped his Island Records releases. Back in 1982, marketing King Sunny Ade was all about winning converts to African pop music. Now with Western-leaning artists Youssou N'Dour, Salif Keita, and Baaba Maal at the forefront of West African music exports, Sunny's unreconstituted Nigerian juju is the perfect antidote to a genre that's come to be watered down and labeled as world music.