King Sunny Ade
Seven Degrees North
First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2009, Volume 16, #7
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Wed July 15, 2009, 05:30 AM CDT
When he passed away in 1981, Bob Marley left a huge void in the global music community. For many reasons, including the fact that he was the first performer from a third-world country to break into the European and North American pop markets, his all-too-brief career was quite remarkable. Clearly, his shoes were going to be difficult to fill, and Chris Blackwell — the founder of Island Records and the principal force behind Marley’s international success — knew it. He had invested a lot of time and money in Black Uhuru — a tremendously talented reggae trio that was backed by Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. Yet, in spite of the nearly unanimous praise that the outfit received, its complex rhythms were years ahead of their time. Likewise, the group’s unwavering political stance was more intense than most people could handle.
As a result, Blackwell decided to cast a wider net, and this led him to King Sunny Ade, a Nigerian guitarist who had been a star in his native country for many years. Like Marley, Ade — whose tight band not only featured over a dozen musicians but also regularly played 12-hour concerts in its homeland — was a seasoned performer by the time he came to the Western hemisphere. Blackwell felt that Ade had what it took to develop an international career, and he repeatedly declared in the press that he had never been so excited by a musician as he was by Ade. So, amid a huge fanfare, the expectations surrounding the release of Juju Music in 1982 certainly were high.
Unfortunately, despite his consistently excellent albums, unanimous praise from influential critics, and dazzling concert performances, Ade failed to draw the large audiences that Marley had. Ade seemed doomed to remain an artist who was highly respected, yet virtually unknown in the larger culture. The jam-band scene had not yet begun to blossom, and mainstream audiences had a difficult time absorbing Ade’s songs, which often stretched beyond half-an-hour in concert. Tours with Black Uhuru as well as collaborations with Stevie Wonder failed to have the desired effect of boosting his profile, and eventually Ade was dropped from Island’s roster.
If Ade was in any way traumatized by his brush with big-time fame, it was difficult to tell. His years with Island built him a devoted audience in Europe and North America, and he continued to tour almost nonstop well into the 1990s. If anything, Ade was able to create music that was even more complex and exhilarating after he was freed from the constraints of trying to develop a career that fell within the terms that Island had set for him.
Much like the Grateful Dead, Ade’s catalogue largely is viewed from a skewed perspective. Many fans firmly believe that the power of his live shows far surpassed the quality of his recordings. As a result, while he continued to release albums in Europe and America and to assemble a different slate of material for the African market, Ade’s sales continued to dwindle. By the dawn of the new millennium, after issuing more than 100 albums worldwide, he had virtually retired from the industry.
Originally released in 2000, Seven Degrees North recently was reissued in conjunction with Ade’s first North American tour in several years. It is a fine album, one that showcases Ade’s beloved polyrhythmic guitar melodies, impassioned vocals, and breathtaking percussion jams. While every track on Seven Degrees North is a gem, special mention must be made of Solution and Ariya, two of the set’s most expansive, life-affirming songs. For the record, Ade doesn’t really broach any new, stylistic terrain on the set. Nevertheless, it is a wonderfully vibrant collection of material, one that serves as a reminder of Ade’s remarkable talent. For those who aren’t familiar with his special blend of juju and African high-life, Seven Degrees North is as good as any place to begin an intoxicating journey through Ade’s canon.
Of Further Interest...
Seven Degrees North is available from
Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2009 The Music Box