King Sunny Ade - "Suku Suku Bam Bam" (Seven Degrees North)
Seven Degrees North, a recently reissued series of unfortunately truncated jams by King Sunny Ade from 2000, refers to the latitudinal location of Lagos, Nigeria, that impossibly populous font of garbage and pollution and joy and awe that has birthed so much African musical royalty, namely the Fela dynasty as well as Ade (at least for the better part of his professional career). The relaxed pace of juju in general, and Ade’s music in particular, would seem to contradict the bustle from which it springs, and would seem better suited to the languid swamps of Louisiana, where Ade chose to record his 1999 release Odu (maybe they brought some swamp back with them?).
The pace on Seven Degrees North is so relaxed -- although not entirely down-tempo – that instruments which have over time taken a back seat in the mix now begin to creep forward. Ade is generally credited with having introduced the pedal steel guitar to juju, a music that was originally far more driven by the melodies of the talking drums that comprise part of the rhythm section. On the seminal Juju Music (1982), Western listeners had their first major label introduction to Ade, and it was the pedal steel player Demala Adepoju who stole the show on nearly every track, despite the fact that Ade himself is a singer and electric guitarist. Here on Seven Degrees North, the pedal steel has found its way out front again, but Ade counters with a gentle vengeance.
On the opener, “Samba,” shiny keyboard songs and a more heavy-handed-than-usual funk beat drive the tune, but Ade’s multi-guitar attack (I have seen as many as four guitarists on stage at a time during Ade’s performances in the past) makes itself felt with layered, almost mathematical counter-riffing and short volleys of melody. “Samba” is followed by “Suku Suku Bam Bam,” and the pedal steel immediately jumps in. Halfway through this delightful 10 minutes (Ade’s customary 30 minutes or more per song would have been particularly welcome here, for a change; he has complained in interviews about being held to pop-song length for his releases outside Nigeria), seasoned listeners will hear a rematch of one of music’s most sublime guitar duels. Ade (on his electric guitar) and the pedal steel player (Adepoju was replaced after Juju Music) recreate their solos from Juju Music‘s “365 Is My Number” along with passages from other tracks on the same album, but here they are played with just a degree or so more ferocity. A distinct Hammond sound appears in “Suku Suku Bam Bam” and shows up on several other songs as well, including the speedy and technically dazzling “Ariya,” perhaps drawing out a little footprint for itself as a new accent to the large band’s sound. Synthesizers featured prominently under the spell of Juju’s producer Martin Meissonier, and although they continue to play a prominent role in the band’s sound, this little organ adds a dusty bit of soul that really anchors the group in time and place, surrendering nothing to the glossiness of so much modern world music.
Although English is actually the de facto official language of Nigeria (and the use of English in his titles broadly suggest the subject matter, as in “Merciful God” or “Congratulations (Birthday Song)”), Ade and his band sing most of their verses and in Yoruba, although one doesn’t need a working knowledge of Yoruba to appreciate their reedy, exuberant harmonies. While there likely cannot be a way to experience again the first time one heard King Sunny Ade’s dense, percolating soup of rhythm and melody, Seven Degrees North is perhaps the closest he’s come to recreating that experience for longtime fans as well as new listeners.