Artist Update: King Sunny Ade

posted by Tom Moon on November 15, 2010 at 7:52 pm
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Latest obsession: Baba Mo Tunde, the 2-disc new release from Nigerian juju master King Sunny Ade.

The groove of “Baba L’oun S’obun Googbo,” one of seven electrifying tracks on the latest from King Sunny Ade, kicks abruptly into a higher gear after the tune has been humming along for several minutes. The first slivers of solo guitar genius happen seven minutes in, when Ade casually drops a few lines that connect Wes Montgomery’s chordal musings with West African arpeggios. All told, the tune takes over eleven minutes to unspool, and at its conclusion, you’re left with the sense that the African Beats, 18 strong, might just be getting started.

So it goes throughoutBaba Mo Tunde (Mesa/Blue Moon), the first studio set from Ade in a decade. Six songs (plus one King Britt remix) are spread over 2 crisply recorded discs. The title track is a thirty one minute journey through jagged hills and shimmering valleys and outbreaks of brilliant talking drum euphoria. Sure, it’s possible to fast-forward and land directly on any of the salient “highlight reel” moments, but as is true of Beethoven and really enduring music of all types, to fully savor them, you have to take the whole ride.

It has been a long, long time since Ade made a record like this one. Why? Cue that tired refrain we call the “talking music-business blues.” During the early days of Ade’s tenure at Island Records, the expectation was that he’d become the African Bob Marley, and so most of his ‘80s records for the international market were oriented toward songs – the episodic brilliance of the African Beats’ slow-to-unravel groove was compressed into bite-sized chunks. This might have helped raise awareness about Ade and juju, but it offered an increasingly telescoped juju experience – one governed by a Western pop song aesthetic, not the simmering pulses and surging crescendos that made the band’s live performances irresistible.

There’s something absolutely life-affirming about hearing a veteran who, having endured the dance of commerce and compromise, prevails by reclaiming some foregone essence of his art. That’s what’s happening here. Inside Baba Mo Tunde are all the crucial elements of juju – the relentlessly light and everlastingly buoyant rhythm, the vocal incantations, the hypnotic guitar latticeworks that serve as structural foundation and countermelody at the same time, the stray wonderful sparks from Ade’s lead guitar. As in every great Ade performance I can remember, the individual elements can be savored as distinct little engines, operating in perfect alignment and helping to synchronize the whole. Each contributes some necessary bit of energy, and what you realize, after following these threads through a hurtling, perpetually unfolding story, is that though it might take awhile, journeys like this are rare. And worth every minute.

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