Two albums from Nigeria’s first Western star on one great disc.
Robin Denselow 2010
Back in the early 1980s, Island Records were searching for an African star who could perhaps match the success of reggae hero Bob Marley, who tragically died in 1981. The obvious contender was Nigeria’s firebrand genius Fela Kuti, so the label contacted Fela’s French producer Martin Meissonnier to ask for his advice. Fela was not available, already signed to Arista, who were then having some trouble promoting his lengthy and highly political songs to Western audiences. But who else could Meissonnier suggest?
While stuck in a Lagos traffic jam on his way to see Fela, Meissonnier heard what he described as an "extraordinary track with a wild pedal steel guitar solo that reminded me of Hendrix", blasting out from a pirate cassette shop. He discovered it was recorded by another Lagos superstar, King Sunny Adé, known locally as ‘The Chairman’. He searched him out, arranged for him to be signed to Island, and the rest is musical history. It was King Sunny and not Fela who became the first Nigerian artist to find major success in the West.
His first international release, Juju Music, was released in 1982 and rightly praised for its subtle and distinctive mix of West African dance rhythms and guitar work. Two other albums for Island quickly followed: Synchro System (1983) and Aura (1984), now re-released together on this CD. Both were produced by Meissonnier, and both provide reminders of why King Sunny succeeded so well – though it’s the Synchro System tracks that show him and his African Beats at their very best. It’s an album that still sounds remarkable for its blend of light, subtle and insistent rhythms (including some impressive talking drum solos), along with fine, delicate vocals from King Sunny and quite remarkable guitar solos. The title-track was a hit in the UK and a dance club favourite, with its hypnotic, gently driving drum patterns matched against easy-going vocals and glorious steel guitar playing from Demola Adepojo. Elsewhere, on Maajo, there’s a subtle switch between harmony vocal work and light, insistent riffs.
The Aura album is more experimental, with electronic percussion mixed in with the talking drums, and doesn’t have quite the same intensity. Even so, there are some great songs here, with a rousing burst of harmonica from Stevie Wonder on Ase, percussion from the great Tony Allen on Oremi, and further reminders of King Sunny’s skills as a guitarist on the stirring Gboromiro. These albums helped to change Western attitudes to African music back in the 80s, and it’s great to hear them once again.