The shift from recorded to live music as the main driver of music commerce happened ten years earlier in Africa than in America. Nigerian juju icon King Sunny Ade—who will tour throughout the U.S. and Canada in June and July 2009—knows first-hand.
Stars of juju—the Nigerian music that came out of palmwine parlors and which is characterized by interlocking guitars punctuated by talking drums on top of a pre-electronica bed of sound created by the Hawaiian lap-steel guitar—would put out up to four albums per year in the good old days: an Easter album, a Ramadan album, a summer record, and then one more for Christmas. Starting with the shift to cassettes and then to CDs, musicians and labels could not outsell the street, where bootleggers would turn around their own production within a week of release. But when juju’s last man standing, King Sunny Ade, who still maintains a huge following in Nigeria, plays North American stages this summer, none of that will matter. Because The Chairman—as his fans lovingly refer to him—is best known as the leader of the original jam band.
Bootlegs notwithstanding, on these shores it may be just as likely that your distribution channel will crumble around release time. Ade’s last album release here, Seven Degrees North, has been off the market since 2000, when label Blue Moon/Mesa’s distributor V2 collapsed. Blue Moon/Mesa will re-release the album in time for this summer’s tour.
Audiences at festivals across the continent—from Bonnaroo to Playboy Jazz, from Ravinia to Celebrate Brooklyn—will witness contagious 40-minute grooves that have been steeped in a modern-day tradition where playing for and reacting to the audience is paramount. The truth is that King Sunny Ade is so well-loved back home, among dignitaries and business leaders, that it is quite a feat to carve out the time for a two-month tour here. But the Chairman likes a change of scenery as much as the next guy, even if he does have to miss out on people “spraying” him with money, as is the tradition back home.
Nigerian music—like in many places in Africa—has a built-in patronage model, from which some North American musicians are taking a page. Whereas some North American artists are starting to offer individual patrons a “producer” spot in their liner notes, attendance at a recording session, or even a mention in the lyrics of a song, African “praise-singers” have always interwoven family history, regional folklore, and direct tributes to benefactors in a live concert setting. The more poetic, knowledgeable, and flattering the praise the singer offers up in live improvised song form, the more dollar bills the honoree literally throws at the performer. And the more money laid on the singer, the longer the musician extols the audience member. This direct fan-to-musician model has developed over many decades and makes top African performers masters of audience engagement. King Sunny Ade—with his huge line-up of musicians and groove-laden jams—is one of the continent’s most-loved performers.
Ironically, “spraying”—the process of tossing or pasting money on a performer—was recently banned in Nigeria. The politicians behind this move argue that the parties have become too opulent. The flipside of the argument is that there is no legal system for musicians to make money. Copyright societies have been in court for almost a decade with arrears in the billions of nairas (Nigerian dollars). Artists’ only hope for making a living is in a live setting.
Though most African countries staged fierce independent movements from European colonizers, most of them succumbed to American, Western European, and Congolese forms of pop music. Until the last couple of years, Nigeria was one of the few holdouts. King Sunny Ade’s standing as the last nationally-known icon of juju takes on more importance in this chapter of Nigerian musical evolution. Whereas Nigerian’s other internationally-recognized music-form, afrobeat, has seen renewed interest thanks, in part, to dozens of non-African bands that have taken up the style, juju is not as easy to replicate. While afrobeat is known for its broken English and social rants laid over funky beats, the older style of juju is wrapped up in proverbs and the conversation between complex interlocking guitar lines and talking drum rhythms. Furthermore, in this age of laptop music production, few bands can afford to tour with up to 30 performers on stage playing tens of thousands of dollars of instruments.
Live music has withstood the test of time in Africa. Music fans who catch King Sunny Ade’s North American summer tour will see the master at work, mesmerizing attendees with a groove that Trey Anastasio long ago said inspired the approach of Phish. The perfect summer juju to get your recessive posterior onto the dancefloor.