King Sunny Ade’s April 14 performance at the Ark is canceled, the Ark announced today.
“Following a tragic car accident on March 26, 2010, which left two of his key band members dead, King Sunny Ade and the African Beat’s morale has been devastated,” the Ark announcement said. “In an effort to find peace of mind and recover, the band feels there is no way for them to continue with any tour plans either domestically or internationally at this time.
“It is with sad regret and apology that King Sunny Ade respectfully withdraws from his scheduled performance….”
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Music from the African continent has broken through to the American consciousness only intermittently. In 1983, though, it reached a high point with King Sunny Ade’s tour of the United States, and I was there when the tour came to Soldier Field, home to the Chicago Bears. You can’t hear African music at a venue that size anymore, but I remember the concert well even now. In the way the music filled a vast space with complex interactions, it rivaled an evening with a full-scale symphony orchestra.
King Sunny Ade, bandleader and guitarist, born Sunday Adeniyi and a genuine scion of Yoruba royalty, works in the Nigerian style called juju. It’s rooted in traditional Yoruba percussion styles, but over the decades since it first developed it has added many layers to that base. The man Nigerians then called the Minister of Enjoyment took the stage with phalanxes of Yoruba talking drums (pitched drums playing patterns that suggest spoken sentences), singers, dancers, and Western melodic instruments, including such novelties as electronic keyboards and even a country-style pedal steel guitar, introduced to West Africa by American oil workers. For three hours–it would have been much longer at a concert in Africa–everything was in musical or physical motion, with the talking drums starting conversations among themselves, the other instruments, and Ade’s speedy electric guitar.
Ade was promoted by the Island record label in the 1980s as a successor to the late reggae star Bob Marley, and he is sometimes credited as the originator of the amorphous genre known as worldbeat. Ade’s 1980s tours may have been the most popular mounted up to that time by any musicians working in a fundamentally non-Western style. Ade never made concessions to the international music industry; the singing was mostly in the Yoruba language, and the music’s Western elements were grafted onto African roots. He never became quite the superstar Island had hoped, but he remained popular in Nigeria and developed a large business empire that led to a new nickname, the Chairman.
With interest in African music on the rise again here, Ade has begun to return to the United States more frequently. He appeared at Tennessee’s Bonnaroo festival, but many of his concerts have been in quieter spots like the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Ade’s accompanying groups have ranged between ten and sixteen musicians, fewer than the kinetic orchestra that played Soldier Field but likely more than enough to bring an idea of what one of the planet’s true musical masters is all about when they arrive next at the Ark, where its occasional shows featuring major African musicians have been uniformly successful for many years.