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How to listen to Sunny – Dami Ajayi

Celebrated musician, King Sunny Ade with poet, journalist and psychiatrist, Dami Ajayi, M.D.

King Sunny Ade with poet, journalist and psychiatrist, Dami Ajayi, M.D.

Press play – yeah, that’s easy. But here’s the dilemma: press play to what; where do you begin? His last international album, Baba Mo Tunde, or his first local hit, Challenge Cup? The little known first single ‘Alanu ni Baba’ that sold about 13 copies or Sweet Banana, the smash hit of the mid-80s? Juju’s finest and most prolific innovator’s discography presents its own difficulties – its oceanic vastness. That said, the studio booth is arguably Juju’s turf; the Yoruba party is a close contender. Ideally, the best way to listen to Sunny is to watch him perform live at a party with his ensemble band, Africa’s Beats, briefly called the Golden Mercury of Africa in the 80s, but that is another story. Listening to Sunny live is a privilege requiring either luck or social mobility or both – so we are back to square one, press play but not on a cassette deck. Spotify or YouTube will have to do. On Spotify, start with 1982’s Juju Music or 2000’s Seven Degrees North; ideally, it should have been either Juju Music or Odu since both albums were nominated for the Grammy’s Award in that rather contentious world music category, but Odu is neither listed on streaming platforms or available in vinyl. The Juju Music LP curates Sunny Ade’s decade-long practice of fronting the rhythm guitar as an indispensable tool in Juju music (shout out to Martin Meissonier and Island Records) while Odu mashes up three decades of Ade’s practice into three overlapping interests -praise-singing, elevating the Yoruba worldview (and the Ifa corpus) and the Yoruba party.

Sunny’s proficiency in praise-singing is best observed in his live performances; his rich patrons have been praised to high heavens and on one occasion to the point of facing a disciplinary panel of the Medical Council; the case in point being that of Dr. Sehindemi who got in trouble when Sunny Ade, in a frenzy of praise, advertised his services, contravening medical ethics.

On Adena Ike, Sunny declares authoritatively in Yoruba that the lack of money is the king of all anxieties, perhaps this explains his own motivations. On Sijuade, he sings for the eponymous Ooni of Ife, long in the rafters as I write, but Sunny mobilises this same tune for the reigning Ojaja II whose dalliances with fair queens is reminiscent of Prufrock. Chief Erelu Abiola* earned a melodious earful on a tune dedicated to her in the 1980s. Ditto for Benin-born Mike Inegbese in the 90s on the celebratory Kool Samba. These days, Femi Otedola and Alhaji Aliko Dangote are Sunny’s current favourite rich patrons. Alas, the poor have no great place in Juju music, except perhaps in the exhortation to Dance, Dance, Dance.  

*(ex-widow of Billionaire Lagos Socialite Deinde-Fernandez)

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