• Saturday, June 15, 2024
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Six Questions for Nigerian Guitarist King Sunny Adé


Two months ago, headlines across Africa blared the news that, contrary to rumors, 69-year-old world-music pioneer King Sunny Adé wasn’t dead. Now, the influential Nigerian guitarist and bandleader returns to New York for two concerts, his first appearances here since 2009.

Sunny Adé and a 17-member version of his African Beats band, will perform Sunday at Rumsey Playfield as part of Central Park SummerStage, opening the new season of the World Music Institute. They return July 14 to MetroTech Commons in downtown Brooklyn as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s R&B Festival.

“There are few artists in modern African music history that are at the same legendary status of King Sunny Adé,” said Par Neiburger, artistic director of the World Music Institute. “He can easily be mentioned in the same breath with artists such as Fela Kuti and Youssou N’Dour.”

Adé, who has released more than 100 records in Nigeria alone, and recently opened a radio station in his Osun State home, spoke to The Wall Street Journal about music, aging and happiness.
You first popularized juju music in the U.S. in the 1980s. How would you describe the spirit of your music?

It’s like I’m changing the old to the new. In the olden days of my ancestors, they’re playing the kora, which I changed to guitar. We’re singing in chorus, call-and-response, which I try to do my best to do it. Any instrument I pick from all the other Western musics must have the tone of the African sound. The music itself is very traditional.

You are known for importing the pedal-steel guitar into Nigerian music. How does that translate?

With my kind of music, normally we have an instrument called goje. Goje is more like a—what do they call it here?—a violin. Then you can get the tone from the violin from the pedal steel. My fans accepted it, and it doesn’t derail from the traditional juju music.

What kind of bandleader are you? Are you strict like James Brown, or more easygoing?

I am me. I don’t want to be a commander. I love to be a bandleader that carries along a team of boys and girls, men and women, that all link together as a family.

You have been touring for 50 years and in September, you turn 70. Do you have a secret to aging well?

The more you play good music and the people love your music, they keep on asking for more. Eventually, you will find happiness. You will not feel that you are getting older.

I’ve read that you have seven wives. Is that still the right number?

I will say yes, but you know I don’t normally say I have so many. I only say I have many wives. [Laughs]. I don’t say seven.

In Africa fans are known to paste dollar bills on musicians’ foreheads during shows. Do you think New York audiences will be so generous?

I have been playing in New York since 1975. I expect everyone to dust off [their] shoes and get ready to dance with me.