King Sunny Adé
This Is Africa invites you on a journey back to a time before Autotune with African Classics Radio, when singers recorded with live bands and real instruments, producing hits that we later came to refer to as "rare grooves" from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, vinyl copies of which now sometimes change hands for eye-watering amounts.
To enhance your experience, we will, from now on, also be writing about some of the seminal artists and albums that you can hear when you tune in. We hope you enjoy the journey.
Synchro System by Nigerian jùjú legend King Sunny Adé and his band the African Beats was the second of three albums released on the Island Records label. The album made it to number 91 on Billboard's Pop Albums list, though it was received with a little less enthusiasm than its predecessor Juju Music. That album, released in 1982, was rightly praised for its subtle and distinctive blend of West African dance rhythms and guitar work. The reviewers found that Synchro System rather resembled Juju Music, and that it missed the distinctive steel-guitar-sound they'd heard emphasised on the latter but that appeared to be less present on Synchro System. Nevertheless, Syncro System was highly admired for its enchanting sensitivity and emotion.
In the early eighties, Island Records was eager to find an African star to help them continue the success they'd had with the then recently-deceased reggae legend Bob Marley. The obvious thing would have been to offer Nigeria's Afrobeat master Fela Kuti a contract, but he'd already signed to Arista. Also Kuti had just started, with some difficulty, to make his long and political songs suitable for a Western audience. It was Fela's French manager Meissonier who came to Island's rescue. He remembered that when he was in Nigeria, he'd listened to a tape on which he heard a wild steel-guitar solo. It had reminded him of Jimi Hendrix and he found out that it had been a recording of another superstar from Lagos, King Sunny Adé, known locally as "The Chairman". He was already well known in Nigeria, and had recorded numerous albums since the sixties.
Meissonier made an appointment with him and arranged for Sunny and his band to sign with Island. The rest is history. Fela enjoyed worldwide celebrity during the 1980s, but King Sunny Adé was actually the first major successful West African artist outside of Africa.
Both Synchro System and Aura (1984) were produced by Meissonier. In my opinion, the tracks on the album Synchro System showcase Sunny Adé and his band at their best. It is an album that still sounds remarkable for its mix of light, subtle and persistent rhythms, further whipped up by a large number of impressive talking drum solos. Add to that the refined and almost shy sounding vocals by King Sunny Adé, and what you have is an enduring classic.
The title song became a hit in England and a dance club favourite, in large part due to the characteristic steel-guitar of Demola Adepojo. Furthermore, the track Maajo makes a subtle link between the harmonious vocal work and the more insistent rhythmic work. The album, along with its predecessor Juju Music and successor Aura, helped put African music firmly on the world map.
Today, the album is still hailed as one of the most important records from Africa. Sunny Adé earned a worldwide following and was originally billed as the "African Bob Marley" (facile, but that's marketing for you). He was the first to integrate steel guitar into Nigerian pop music, and he also introduced synthesizers, the clavinet, vibraphone and tenor guitar to his jùjú repertoire. His refusal to allow the people at Island Records to Europeanize or Americanize his music brought his relationship with the label to an end, but what a great set of albums that relationship gave us!