King Sunny Adé Baba Mo Tunde

[IndigeDisc; 2010]

Styles: jù-jú, Yoruba, Nigeria, psyche guitar, talking drums
Others: Ebenezer Obey, Shina Peters

When Nigerian music of the 1970s is mentioned outside of Africa these days, the words “Fela Kuti” are never far away. The amount of Fela-love over the last few years has been inspiring, as have the accompanying forays into African popular music of the 60s and 70s undertaken by vinyl archeology labels such as Analog Africa, Soundway, and Strut. Not so much has been heard, however, about Fela’s contemporary King Sunny Adé, a musician with a different style but with similar genre-crossing ability and international appeal.

It was a different matter back in the 80s. While Kuti was known as a political firebrand and figurehead of afrobeat, it was Adé who was tagged, albeit rather dubiously, as the man to take on Bob Marley’s role on the global stage. By then, Adé had established himself on the African popular music scene, releasing hundreds of recordings of jù-jú music from the late 60s onward. Snapped up by Island, he experimented with the basic jù-jú formula — Yoruba talking drums, psychedelic slide guitar, extended multi-song jams — by adding “Western” instrumentation, most notably synthesizers, and adapting his style to the demands of the emerging “world music” category.

Adé’s Island albums — Juju Music, Synchro System, and Aura — remain classics of their time. In fact, they are arguably better appreciated now that the fusion music on them can be seen in light of its forward-looking drive rather than being dismissed by neocolonialist angst over the “authenticity” of others’ music (a problem encountered by many African artists in the 80s). Such innovation meant inevitable sacrifices, most notably a reduction of the epic running times of Adé’s African recordings and performances. Compilations of this music began to emerge following Adé’s rise to international fame, bearing witness to his band’s Grateful Dead-like mastery of extended psychedelic workouts. Like the Dead, the African Beats ran numerous songs together into one cosmic mix of blissed-out vocals, snaking guitar solos, and polyrhythmic drumming.

After being dropped by Island when sales of the third album failed to meet their expectations, Adé went back to recording and performing longform jù-jú of the kind that had made a name for him in Nigeria. International releases became more sporadic, and Baba Mo Tunde is Adé’s first album since 2000’s excellent Seven Degrees North. It’s a double CD of just seven long tracks adding up to 110 minutes of top quality jù-jú. Andrew Frankel’s production gives the music an immediacy and intensity that is startling at times; the opening of “Baba Feran Mi” is brilliantly sequenced and establishes the dominant themes with masterful concision, while listening to the track’s closing percussion break on good headphones will seriously reconfigure a listener’s head.

It is tempting to describe this music in terms of time’s relativity, to describe its 30-plus-minute tracks as challenges to listeners’ concepts of acceptable song length, narrative development, and so on. Such a response might make a connection to Adé’s own appearances, disappearances, and reappearances from the international scene over the course of recent decades. Then there are the old and familiar songs that bubble up into these extended jams, albeit with slight changes; fans of Juju Music (or the hard-to-find Private Line LP) will note that “365 Is My Number” has been changed to “0805 Is My Number.”

However, what this music really seems to ask for is a spatial response. Metaphors of nature and geography present themselves: slivers of lead guitar slice their way to the forefront of the soundscape with lethal precision; other, mellower guitars ripple and eddy in the background; drums provide a ground that’s paradoxically both stable and shifting. The instrumental section that takes us through the middle of “Oro Yi Bale” is a waterfall of sound, the kind of place you’d want to bathe in forever. The massive title track climbs and climbs before reaching a plateau and diving into glorious freefall, descending eventually back to earth on blissful eddies of percussion and ice-cool guitar.

The opening out of the soundscape on Baba Mo Tunde serves as a reminder of the ways in which time and space have been subject to reduction over the history of recorded music. It was the restrictions of the recording medium that reduced the length of African popular music in the 20th century, a reduction that has been increasingly challenged since the growth of the LP format in the 60s. More capacious media allow something a bit closer to the ritual of live performance, even if they can’t give access to all its aspects (dancers are listed on the credits to this album but not witnessed).

“Baba Mo Tunde” dominates the second disc of the album, but the two tracks that follow it manage to present two additional sides of Adé’s music. The first is a remix of the title track by King Britt, which cuts it down to half its length (it’s still 15 minutes long!). Not only is this slightly counter to standard remix procedure, but it could even be seen as a reminder of the restriction imposed by previous non-African producers on Adé’s work. (Some might call it discipline, but they’d be wrong). It’s superfluous, really, and certainly a lot less enjoyable than the closing track “Eyi Ma Dun To,” 11 glorious minutes of flute-driven acoustic music and lyrics drawn from Yoruba folk poetry. These two tracks suggest the ways in which Adé is still drawn to the blending of old and new that has always informed his art. As a showcase of what the jù-jú master is capable of, Baba Mo Tunde is up there with Adé’s best work.

Links: King Sunny Adé - IndigeDisc

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