By Jack Spencer
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King Sunny Adé had just formed his first juju band when Nigeria began its own version of ethnic cleansing. After a coup in January of 1966 and a counter-coup five months later, self-government collapsed altogether the following year. The British, the country's former colonial masters, intervened against a seceding Eastern Nigeria, the Igbo-speaking region that became briefly known as the Republic of Biafra.
The Hausa-Fulani-dominated northern region began carrying out anti-Igbo massacres. And Adé, a Yoruban prince living in Western Nigeria, watched it all with horror. His 10-piece band, the Green Spots (formerly the High Society Band), played gigs that were broken up violently by Eastern rebels. One of their musicians was gang-pressed into military service, never to be heard from again.
"It's a time when my memory really doesn't want to be thinking about it," says Adé, speaking over the phone from a stop on his current U.S. tour. "When you see people sliced to death, when you see people walking, and all of a sudden you have a blast from a tanker or a house, and a lot of people running, and another one hit by a car, and another one hit by a truck...." He leaves the sentence unfinished. "I don't pray for any war in the world at all."
One lifetime later, Adé's first American tour in years revisits the civil war without mentioning it, exactly. The conflict, which defeated and absorbed Biafra in 1970, was musical as well as military: During the oil-boom years, Yoruban juju emerged victorious over Igbo highlife in the Lagos-centered music business. But this year's tour, which arrives at the Cabooze Sunday, pairs Adé (the "king of juju") with Prince Obi Osadebe ("the prince of highlife," and son of highlife great Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe), an event that represents the first time such prominent Igbo and Yoruba stars have toured together, anywhere.
This simple gesture is typical of Adé, who, unlike his late friend Fela Anikulapo Kuti, doesn't regard himself as a political figure. "I love heroes," says Adé. "I salute their courage, because apart from them doing a lot of things, maybe I wouldn't be able to speak to you today. But the political side of it is what I am afraid of, from the age of seven. In my country, when it's time for a rally or a political campaign, people will fight and kill each other."
Adé is more political than he lets on, but in ways that more resemble the late Bob Marley, another cryptic idealist solicited by presidential candidates. An Adé hit from 1975 was named for General Murtala Mohammed, a Nigerian dictator who came out looking good in retrospect (if only by comparison) and had been killed that year in yet another coup. While Fela was installing a barbed-wire fence around his private compound, Adé drew his own quiet lines in the sand.
Because King Sunny Adéwas the first African musician peddled to the rock audience by a Western record company, his career is sometimes framed as a failed marketing exercise. (Island records magnate Chris Blackwell, Bob Marley's old patron, signed, and eventually dropped, the bandleader.)
But Adé's professional life began some 20 years earlier, and it continues more than 20 years later--he still plays until dawn twice a week in Lagos. Born Sunday Adeniyi in Ondo, on a Sunday in 1946, the young drummer was initially drawn to his genre for its beats. Juju, the graceful Yoruban party music pioneered by bandleader I.K. Dairo, took its name from colonial slang for any African medicine. When Adé was a boy, it was being played by large ensembles of electric guitarists and percussionists, communicating wordlessly with each other in mysterious polyrhythmic code.
A young Adé joined a succession of bands while pretending to go to school. At age 17, he dropped out of college and ran away to Lagos. "Being from royalty, there are certain things that you can't do," he says. "They don't expect you to play music for people. The people are supposed to play music for you."
Adé lied to his parents, telling them he was at university, until an uncle spotted a photo of the aspiring musician, now billed as "Sunny Adé," on the front page of the local newspaper. If musicians had a lowly reputation among the family, Adé wasn't concerned. During the war, he began scoring hit singles with the Green Spots, and by 1970 he was bold enough to cut a B-side called "Come and Look at the Breasts" (at least in the translation of juju scholar Christopher Alan Waterman), an ode to bush women with the lilting refrain, "It is for screwing/Their bottom is high." (The song is curiously omitted from 2003's gorgeous Shanachie release The Best of the Classic Years.)
To American fans discovering juju for the first time in the '80s, King Sunny Adé's gentle reed of a voice and otherworldly Hawaiian guitar sounded something like peace. "Sunny's cool is a congenial cool, a secure, calm cool," wrote Greg Tate in the Village Voice. "The words in his catchiest tune...mean, 'my head shall fight for me.'" Robert Altman later directed O.C. and Stiggs, a film about two teenage friends obsessed with Adé.