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Arts & Culture

Nigerian Legend King Sunny Adé Comes to San Diego

King Sunny Ade
King Sunny Ade

Nigerian Legend King Sunny Adé Comes to San Diego
A pop superstar from Nigeria comes to San Diego. Musician King Sunny Adé and his 17-piece band have just launched a North American tour. They'll perform at The Belly Up Tavern on Tuesday night.

In the 1980's King Sunny Adé was marketed in the US as the African Bob Marley, but his music isn't reggae, it's jùjú, the traditional music of Nigeria. King Sunny Adé modernized jùjú music. He took the basic elements, the talking drums and the guitar, and added high-end production values and the pedal steel guitar. However, the one constant has remained the talking drums, which are the heart of jùjú music.

Dr. Lewis Peterman is the president of San Diego's Center for World Music. He says, "the reason they talk is because the language in this case the Yoruba language is actually a tonal language like Chinese or Vietnamese whereby pitch inflection actually imparts meaning." Dr. Peterman adds that the drums have two roles in jùjú music. "One is the speaking mode and one is the dance mode and when they're using the dance mode, it's fairly straightforward and it's (makes drum sound…). And when they're actually speaking you can hear it because they actually play louder and there is no singing going on and they're deflecting the tone more prominently (makes drum sound…)."

The drums actually comment on the performance as it's happening. For example, they might comment on King Sunny Adé's lyrics. Dr. Peterman adds that they might say something like, "You say it King, that's the truth. Or they may say something more subtle or metaphorical but they'll be commenting on the text or maybe on someone in the room who's dancing. "

Almost all of King Sunny's lyrics are sung in Yoruba and he often incorporates traditional proverbs. Andy Frankel has been studying Nigerian music for over 30 years and is King Sunny Adé's long-time manager. He says "one of the great songs that is an example of the kind of lyrics King Sunny likes to use is called Ogidan O Ni Se Barber. The song uses a proverb and the proverb is about things that can't work or don't make sense in life."

Frankel goes on to translate the song's literal meaning: "The whole phrase is ogidan o ni se barber, which means the leopard couldn't be a barber and have the dog show up for a haircut. Which to any Yoruban makes perfect sense. If the leopard is the barber and the dog shows up to get a haircut instead of getting a haircut he's going to get eaten.

By American standards, King Sunny Adé's shows might be considered extravagant. He's been known to have close to 30 musicians on stage, and traditional dancing is always featured. Andy Frankel describes the dancing. "They've got some great dancers that come with them that do some amazing high energy African, what they call fire dancing in Nigeria, which includes a lot of hip movement that would likely injure most of us but they're very good at it."

Sean Barlow is the executive producer of the public radio show Afropop Worldwide. He says, "quite simply, King Sunny Adé opened the way for African music in the US. Not until King Sunny Adé came along really did we get the sense of modern, urban rich dynamic culture represented by their music. "

These days, King Sunny Adé seldom travels to the United States. This summer tour is a rare opportunity to experience the music of Nigeria from one of its legends.

Angela Carone, KPBS News

King Sunny Adé and the African Beats will be at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach on Tuesday, June 16th. You can learn more about King Sunny Ade by going to the Culture Lust blog.