King Sunny Adé is the world's first Afro-rock star and the father of what your local record store calls "world music." With such a long history — he has clocked 40 years in the business — it'd be easy to take him for granted. But the internationally renowned artist defies complacency with a new album, Seven Degrees North, that reaffirms his songwriting mastery. Seven Degrees also arrives in time to reacquaint the public with the original progenitor of juju music, a sound that has become fashionable with a cavalcade of young indie rockers in recent years.
Since the beginning, Adé's hyperdanceable aesthetic has orbited around juju, a style connected to the ritual, magic-oriented practices of his native Yoruban culture, one of the biggest demographics in Nigeria. Like much African music, Juju is percussion-heavy and features the distinctive talking drums — instruments that, through pitch-bending, can create the illusion of speaking. The immediate sound, however, isn't far from the Congo's soukous or Ghana's high-life. These genres all involve addictive, dancing guitar melodies with progressive rock complexities.
Adé has never been concerned with preserving an unadulterated version of juju. He instead uses the style as a lens through which he interprets an international scope of music: rhumba, merengue, samba, surf-rock, and dub. "I make sure all kinds of music are in there," he says.
With his 19-member band (which has sometimes reached the orchestral mass of 30 people), Adé explores his genre-fusion through creative instrumentation, juxtaposing vibraphones, synthesizers, accordions, and pedal steel guitars against traditional Afrobeat instruments like guitar, bass, organ, and percussion.
Adé's diversity of approach is largely responsible for spurring the "world music" movement; he specifically served as Island Records' emissary for African music. After Island spent the mid-'70s fashioning Bob Marley into the world's first reggae-rock star, the label turned toward Africa and discovered Adé. The seasoned musician (born Sunday Adéniyi) had been performing since the '60s, and was known throughout Nigeria for playing extended jams at all-night dance parties. In 1982, when Island released his debut for the label, Juju Music, Nigerian music was introduced to the world at large.
Where Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti had already emerged as the serious, politically aggressive warrior of Nigeria, Adé was referred to as both the "minister of enjoyment" and the "African Bob Marley," giving listeners a warm, cozy introduction to the continent. Adé didn't want anything from his fans but moving feet.
After Adé's rise, Paul Simon and WOMAD helped to bring African music into the pop realm. Adé's prominence may have waned since the release of Juju Music, but within the last five years, art-rock bands such as Foals, TV on the Radio, Vampire Weekend, and Animal Collective have been delving back into the juju sound. The Dirty Projectors' recently released album, Bitte Orca, is driven by the fast-moving, multipart vocal harmonies and off-kilter guitar picking that has propelled Adé's sound since the beginning.
Unbelievably, Adé has recorded more than 120 albums (about three a year), producing songs the way jazz musicians produce notes. Until last month, though, none of these records came close to the effect of his debut. His recent releases, including Ariya and Odu, a traditional Yoruban-sounding record, have all been strong enough, but Seven Degrees North returns to the quality of his debut.
It captures the warmth of his choral vocals, the tightness of his band, and, most importantly, the joy that can emerge from an intricately arranged tapestry of polyrhythms. On "Appreciation," a heavenly pedal-steel melody materializes inside a cyclone of banging percussion, creating a moment that could only occur in Adé's music. Very little is modern about the record. Its sound remains distinctly juju, unaffected by the ebb of musical trends, filled with the same magic that first turned the world's ears toward Adé.