Gems from the Classic Years is the second recent King Sunny Ade (known as KSA to fan insiders) collection to be released on the Shanachie label. It follows Shanachie’s Best of the Classic Years (2003), and like that recording, is dedicated to gifting the early, innovative, and influential recordings of this seminal juju artist to the world outside of Nigeria (where they have rarely been heard up to this point). The African style of juju developed from Yoruba folkloric elements and a variety of international strains, most notably driven by amplified and electric instruments as well as heavy traditional Yoruba percussion. Ade entered the scene in 1967 following work as a samba player, and focused much of his early juju work on melodic exploration. During this period, Ade introduced a number of creative innovations to the music, including the prominence of dance and a much larger, more varied performing ensemble. He quickly ascended to an eminent position in the Nigerian pop scene, and followed this success with international notoriety in the 1980s. Today, Ade stands as a symbol for Afro-pop, and African music more generally, on the international stage.
Ade leads the ensemble featured on Gems on lead guitar and vocals, complemented by a large ensemble of backing vocals, interlocking guitarists, and a massive group of percussionists. Guitarists include the innovative Bob Ohiri and Segun Ilori, with the fluid Jelili Lawal on electric bass; the four vocalists are Tunde Temiola, Matthew Olojede, Niyi Falaye, and Jacob Ajakaye. The percussion ensemble features Moses Akanbi (drum set), Shina Abiodun (congas), Adeyemi Adisa (bongos), Gani Aiashe (shekere), Michael Babalola (maracas), Alhaji Timmy Olaitan (lead talking drum), and Rasaki Aladokun (2nd talking drum).
Gems consists primarily of four multiple-song medleys that clock in at 16-17 minutes each, and concludes with two extremely short individual tunes (“Dele Davis” and “John Ali”). The collection is a masterful drawing together of individual musicality into a rich, ever shifting palette of colors, water-like in a persistent ebb and flow within solid banks of percussive grounding. It was digitally mastered by Robert Vosigien at Capitol, and a spacious use of panning allows each timbral color to burst forth from a live-feeling sense of aural space. The collective improvisation, volleys of musical energy exploding back, forth, and together, put a fine point on the overall live feeling of these medleys; if sun, celebration, and together-being can be packaged in sound, they are presented here in their most essential form. The collection opens with a four-song medley called “Ori Mmi Maje N’te,” in which Ade’s sharp vocals are liquidly answered by reverb-soaked guitars and spinning melodic gestures from the guitars and electric bass underpinning. This is followed by another four-song medley, “Nibi Lekeleke Gbe Nfosho,” peppered with rich vocal harmonies and a heavy bass groove punctuated by the talking drums. Interestingly, the curtains of melodic experimentation are drawn back here to offer a pointed contrast between Western-style blues guitar riffs against tight and shimmering juju guitar voicings. The two-song medley “I Sele Yi Leju” explores the outskirts of rhythmic and melodic density along with question and answer vocals between Ade and the rest of the ensemble. “Sunny Special,” another four-song collective, concludes the medleys and incorporates together much of the distinctive elements offered by the previous three medleys. The collection concludes with the two catchiest songs on the album, brief and impossible to forget. Unfortunately, “Dele Davis” is the most lacking in terms of sound quality, with a persistent buzz and scratchy sound with noticeable distortion.
This latest Shanachie collection, compiled and produced by Randall Grass, is an excellent aural introduction to the genre of juju, and, indeed, Afro-pop in general through a window on the seminal creative genius of one of its most celebrated practitioners. In that regard, it is an important acquisition for newcomers to Afro-pop as well as seasoned collectors. Both groups, however, in addition to potential researchers, will likely be disappointed with the lack of liner notes accompanying the collection. With the exception of a short paragraph visible through the translucent plastic behind the CD, there is little to contextualize this music, Ade’s specific contributions, and social contexts in which people might typically experience and enjoy this music. Researchers especially are urged to consult one or both of the following recommended sources for information that will provide more context. This kind of information is not simply supplementary, but critical for understanding the music and fostering a true interpretation and appreciation of it. Another critical omission, much in the same regard, is a translation of Ade’s lyrics. To not provide this information is tantamount to saying that understanding them is unimportant, though this undoubtedly is not the message Grass and Shanachie intend to communicate. Finally, it would be useful for students of the music and other listeners to provide track divisions for each of the individual tunes within the medleys. Searching through the 17 minutes of music for particular songs can be time-consuming and difficult.
Despite these omissions, however, the value of these recordings cannot be underestimated and Grass and Shanachie should be commended for their help in exposing the wider world to them – their labeling as “gems” is not an exaggeration of their importance.
For further information:
Alaja-Browne, Afolabi. 1989. “A Diachronic Study of Change in Juju Music.” Popular Music 8(3):231-242.
Waterman, Christopher A. 1990. Jùjú: A Social History and Ethnography of an African Popular Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Posted by Anthony Guest-Scott