King Sunny Ade Interview
Interview with the legendary King Sunny Ade
King Sunny Ade, Brian Kracyla and Monty Wiradilaga
Manchester, TN – Bonnaroo 2009
M: We are sitting backstage with King Sunny Ade. Thank you very much for being with us, it is an absolute honor.
K: Thank you very much, sir.
M: I know this is going to be an odd place to start an interview but you where born into a royal Nigerian family and I was actually born into a royal Indonesian family…
K: Oh, beautiful.
M: I never had an opportunity to experience what my father and his parents and grandparents did. Tell me about your experience as Nigerian royalty.
K: Nigerian royalty sticks with tradition and I went against tradition, so I always ran into trouble. There were laid down policies and laid down traditions. From my own experience, I tried to play on the intelligence on my parents, which backfired. But, before it all totally backfired, I lost my father. From there my mother looked at it very well and said, “Are you sure that you are going to play music?” In any royal family, you weren’t supposed to play music. Musicians are supposed to play for you. Even with something you like so much, you either renounce your royalty or you leave the music. But when you’re young you just want to do what you love best. So, I ran away from home. I told the whole family that I was going to a university campus where instead I was playing. The reason why I formed the group called King Sunny Ade and his High Society Band is because they couldn’t recognize me by my name, which is Sunday Adeniyi. Actually, originally we were Sunday Adeniyi and his High Society Band but I found it difficult to be known by my name, so after we became King Sunny Ade and the African Beats. So, they (my family) were thinking that I was on campus and during the holidays I’d go home as if I was returning back home (from school). I looked at it one day and I said to myself, if I do this to my family, how do I know that my children won’t do the same thing to me? I had to tell them the truth. Before I told them the truth, I was thinking that they were going to look for me. If they looked for me and found me playing music, it would have been a total disappointment to the entire family. It would be in the book and, for the next generation, maybe your children would not come near to the throne again. But, as God would love it, I played music. Then I started telling a few friends of my father and mother, and knowing what’s best, I started planning it gradually. I didn’t make a record and I didn’t play in the public. But, eventually, when we started playing in the public and recording, they already knew my picture as King Sunny Ade. My experience is so, I wouldn’t call it fragile, but so thick that I just look at it as a miracle. I either had to lose interest in the music or renounce the royalty. More or less I’m the forgiven child of the family.
M: Did you feel that you had to reestablish yourself? Was it a reinvention of yourself through the music?
K: Well, it’s more or less like a new life entirely. You have to start from the beginning and you have to try your best to let them know that royalty is one side. You have to respect people because the people have to respect you. You have to respect the tradition as well. You have to, immediately before they ask you, you have to explain how you came about music and became a musician. So, I have to start from the beginning. First of all, if you have to be in the public you should not be doing this as if you’re the son of a king. You have to be a normal person and no matter what kind of insults are given to you, you just say ‘please, I know what I want and I’m doing what I love best.’ I look at this as a miracle people have given me, allowing me to play music.
M: Well, that’s the whole basis of Nigerian culture. Based upon family, tradition, praise music…
K: It’s a combination of tradition and royal tradition. Praises is like reading incantation or doing a praise of somebody who has done something nice in the community. You give kudos. You try to let the people know what he or she has done for the community. But in an area where praises have to come, it’s been over here before the colonials came to Africa, over here they give certificates, they give plaques, they give something where your name has to be written in gold. In Los Angeles, you have your hands or your feet on the walk of fame but in Africa use praises. The praises start from your ancestors. How good your father was would be, from one generation to another. When they are praising you right now for your forefathers and it is you that is in the present, it makes you feel so good and you feel so happy. So you’re given money or you’re given a gift. It has happened all around the world. Over here if you are good or you do something like performing very well, they give you many flowers. If there’s a chance, they’ll shake your hand or you give out your autograph. But over there, instead of flowers, they give you money. In the old days, it’s only the king that can give a gift to a performer. The performer starts from having a cowry, you know that little insect form the ocean? They’ll put a twine in between the cowry and they’ll tie it to your forehead and then when you’re dancing around the whole place has to stand and give you a standing ovation. And that’s an appreciation of the king in which he approves what you’ve done best. Then another generation comes and instead of using the cowry, when the shillings and pounds came with the British, you know we were a British colony, so they use the same rope or twine in between the holes of a coin, where you have a picture of the queen or the king, and you tie it to the forehead. Nowadays, you can hardly find a coin that has a hole so now they put the currency to your forehead as if there was. And if the king is not around you still have to show appreciation. If you are praising someone from his own ancestors, his own forefathers, when you are playing music, he’ll be delighted and will give you more money. I call it spraying praises.
M: You’ve certainly gone much farther than just giving money. I know you’re the chairman of the Musical Copyright Society of Nigeria. You’ve given back to the community of music in so many ways. What is the achievement that you have most been proud of in the time that you have been able to interact with your people?
K: I just believe in my parents, especially my mother, who used to give me a proverb. It said, “The giver’s hand is always on top.” So, you use the other side to receive. When you are being given to, either from God or from man, you have to give to others. You have to help others. That is what I did. Instead of people coming to me all the time, I go to people. You go to underprivileged people, you go to the old people, you go to people that are just coming into the profession that they want to be. There are some people who are poor and they are unable to take care of their kids, where as the kids are so bright and so good and educated. These are the areas where nobody comes. I don’t just do it, (snaps) just like that, I call in some distinguished people that are wealthy and that are in a better position in the nation. They all came around to assist me. When I say that I want to give to this, I will list it. They will all look at it and will say, okay, let’s extend it to this level. Or if there’s not enough money on the ground, they will contribute to make sure that every goes well. This is how we do it.
M: So, you have many roles!
K: Yeah, definitely!
M: You speak in a lot of proverbs. Is that a big basis of what you’ve prided yourself upon, about what you have created for yourself?
K: Actually, the proverbs are always the basic things that explain words to people in your urban language. Right now, for me to tell you as we are sitting down here right now, and I want to tell you that we are supposed to leave now and go, I would only tell you in proverbs. I’d say when the owner of the house is showing you the head of a yam, showing you the edge of that potato means that it’s time to go. It’s like that. For instance, on stage, when the drummer wants to talk to me and get my attention, what he would do is call my name and when I look back and know that somebody is talking to me on my right side, maybe it’s the manager who wants to tell me that the show is supposed to start. I’ll look there and I will see the hand. Or somebody will say, “you are going to far, watch yourself” when I’m going to the crowd, so I know what is happening. The proverbs will not tell me, “somebody is looking for you”. It will tell me, “King Sunny Ade” when he mentions my name, I know it is me. If it is not me he will mention somebody else’s name. When he calls somebody else’s name, all of us will pay attention, maybe that’s the only available person that he can remember his name. He will call his name and say, “When it is getting dark, you have to prepare to go.” So then I learn to say, “Now it is the time, let us go” because other people will say, “No, no, no! You are not going!” But when it is said in the proverbs those are the things people used to say. When your family or whoever is advising you as a kid how to behave well, to be a good boy, and to be responsible, then at the end of the day they say, “It is the half of words given to the wise.” When they say that and it goes to your mind it becomes big.
M: Speaking to you reminds me of the fact that you’ve been called the African Bob Marley. How did it feel to be compared to Bob Marley as they call him a prophet? You speak in a very similar way.
K: If people compare you to somebody and if that somebody is somebody to be reckoned with, well that can be okay, because Bob Marley is a legend of his own, a master of his music, a creator, and an indigenous musician. But Bob Marley is Bob Marley, nobody can be like Bob Marley. King Sunny Ade is King Sunny Ade. The whole family, the whole palace that we live within, like we live in the same house, is music. We are in the house of music. So Bob Marley is Bob Marley and King Sunny Ade is King Sunny Ade. Even if you take one of his songs, you cannot be Bob Marley, you can be “like” Bob Marley. Another one is Rita Marley or Ziggy Marley, you can only compare the music but you cannot compare him. Whoever steps into his shoes depends on how he or she handles it before you get to his level. I am very positive that it is not going to be this generation. Bob Marley is Bob Marley and King Sunny Ade is King Sunny Ade.
M: (laughing) Thanks for setting that straight. One last thing, I wanted to ask you about Juju music. Can you give us a little lesson?
K: Juju music is a music that has been taken by my ancestors from different shrines. Every shrine in Africa has it’s own music. People who worship have their music. The people worshipping the gods of iron, they have their music. The people worshipping Tonda, they have their music. Those people who worship the Goddess of the river have their music. They are all different. They believe that those gods are the hands of God. They don’t actually know how to appease the God. Only God made the song, we have to pray so God wont be annoyed because song, if it will help us to appeal to God, will help us so that he will not come down, because God will burn everything. You know like when the sun is shining so much, everybody will be uncomfortable. There are some people who worship the river that say when you were born you have to drink water and if water is annoyed you must please the god. This is how they think and believe. When they colonized Africa, they didn’t have the names to give to the different shrines. The music itself, if you want to play it out, you cannot just play it out, you have to play it in the shrine or you play it for the people worshipping the goddess’. My ancestors had to take pieces and pieces of that music and join them together and make it an open, neutral music, a music that has no connection with any shrine or any kind of religion, like a free music. So they use it play in a band at a bar or at a party and when this music was played the colonials had no name to give it. It’s Juju music. “Juju” is like voodoo or black magic. It’s the same name given to jazz when jazz came around calling it evil or rubbish music. But now it’s a music that is so big and listened to around the world. So that’s how Juju music came. Now the music has now been played everywhere, you go to church you see it there, you got to a shrine you see it there. We are now at a concert, at a festival, and here it is. It’s a free music. It’s a happy music. When you are playing it you are happy. In Africa, in Nigeria, when I play at a party and I start at six o’clock at night, I close at six o’clock in the morning.
M: Ha, that’s a good party.
K: Yes! Sometimes from that party you go straight to work.
M: We want to thank you very much for being with us. I’m sure the world has a big thanks to you for making such beautiful music.
K: I have to thank you too for allowing me to speak to the entire world of my fans. God bless you.