King Sunny Ade of Nigeria came and went as a star of African music, and these days makes only sporadic appearances. At his peak, in the early ’80s, he had a deal with Island Records, which was then hoping he would fill the shoes and sales of the recently deceased Bob Marley. But if Ade’s music was reigning supreme at home — where his lyrics, sung in Yoruba, were praised for their power and deep metaphors, and where the music’s complex rhythms made sense — abroad the music never went down quite as easily as Marley’s did. After Ade’s third release, “Aura,” flopped, Island dropped him. He then endured another humiliation when his band up and quit in the midst of a tour in Japan.
Juju, Ade’s style of music, is very different from, say, Afro beat, another of Nigeria’s famous styles. Now touring with a band of up to 30 musicians, the intense rhythms of Ade’s music sound more innocent and jubilant than most Afro beat, Fela Kuti’s in particular. Where Fela throbs with urgency, Ade percolates steadily.
As is the case with the music of many African artists, the records Ade cut for export never quite dug as deep as the 10-minute-plus songs he was accustomed to playing for African audiences. But “Synchro Series,” recorded live in the early ’80s, gives listeners a great taste of what Ade can do when there’s no restrictions on time.
“Synchro Series” opens with “Gbe Kini Ohun De,” a tune that clocks in at nearly 19 minutes and pretty much says what this album is all about. With each listen, different elements seem to grow in the mix — Ade’s sweet-sounding vocals and the chorus that answers him are immediate and captivating, but no less so than the surprising slices of pedal steel guitar. Ade’s snappy guitar lines and energetic chords surface here and there as the tune just rolls along. Perhaps the one major contrast on the record is the stripped-down “Synchro Reprise,” which bears the twin influences of James Brown and dub reggae. There is a noticeable absence of any horns on this record, and the percussionists get to do a lot of talking in the space, answering the lead voices or carrying on multiple conversations among themselves. This music might sound cheery, but it’s also very deep.
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