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Running Deep, The Roots Of King Sunny Adé

Running Deep, The Roots Of King Sunny Adé

The nocturnal walk home through Lagos would take him up to two hours, after he had played all night at the West End Coliseum, a popular nightclub on Lagos Island. After trekking the 1,640-foot-long Carter Bridge across the lagoon back to the mainland, he would take a break for some window shopping at Bhojsons. This Indian-owned store used to be the place where well-to-do Lagosians bought their wedding gifts. Nowadays the shop windows that once showcased watches and jewelry are bricked shut, as Bhojsons sells motorbikes and tricycles in a showroom that vaguely smells of the dried crayfish sold at the adjacent Oyingbo market.

From Bhojsons, the musician would stroll down the rail track all the way to his rented room in Mushin, some three miles north. It was the mid-1960s and the young man, Sunday Ishola Adeniyi Adegeye, still an unknown artist, could not afford the cab fare home.

Today, 69 and long known as King Sunny Adé, he is a wealthy man and one of Nigeria’s most famous musicians. He became the worldwide icon of juju, the Yoruba praise music driven by the rhythm of the talking drum accompanied by Hawaiian-style guitar. After gaining local popularity during the ’70s oil boom, when the Lagos elite invited Sunny Adé and His African Beats to spice up their parties, he started touring internationally in the 1980s, having been called “The New Bob Marley” by his agents. He was nominated for a Grammy twice, but never broke through on the world stage. Among world-music lovers, however, his fame is substantial.

Sunny Adé, who grew up in Osogbo in Osun State, went to Lagos in 1963 to be a musician, after lying to his mother that he had been accepted to a university there. The metropolis on the Atlantic became his home, and his career prospered.

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Victor Olaiya’s family house, Casa do Fernandez, where Mr.Olaiya used to have an instrument shop, where Mr. Adé got his guitar. Credit Tom Saater for The New York Times

The juju superstar is not much in the public eye anymore. He spends most of his time in his remote ancestral village, a five-hour drive northeast of Lagos, and rarely performs. He also is notoriously elusive and rarely grants interviews. Nevertheless, you won’t find many people in Lagos who don’t know of the musician called KSA.

In his memoir, “My Life, My Music,” Mr. Adé recounts how he built his first house in swampy Bariga deep inside the Lagos mainland. In 1970 he moved into the two-story house at 17 Ajileye Street, containing four separate apartments: two for his wives and two for himself. Independent living units would become his typical building style. Mr. Adé had many wives and fathered a lot of children, but never lived with any of them.

Across the street he would eventually build eight more apartments for his family. On a Sunday afternoon you will find that palm-tree-lined compound full of life, with Mr. Adé’s grandchildren kicking a ball, two of his daughters doing the laundry and one of his wives leaning out of an upper-floor window to comment on the scene.

The off-white house at No. 17 is quieter, especially since the musician’s mother, who lived there, died five years ago at the age of 112. Until a very late age, she cooked for her son, and when she couldn’t anymore she monitored his food to ensure it was prepared hygienically. The house is now a home to Mr. Adé’s nieces and nephews as well as some of his former employees.

One resident is Sunday Okundaye, who started playing with Mr. Adé in the mid-1960s, when the band was still called Sunny Adé and His Green Spots Band. On a recent Sunday afternoon the retired conga player sat under the marquee of Fric Bar, a drinking spot next to No. 17 that draws most of its clientele during English Premier League soccer matches.

While the popular 2013 dance song “Skelewu” blared from loudspeakers, as if to drown out the roaring generators, Mr. Okundaye reminisced about the old days, when the band members used to sleep on the nightclub chairs waiting for a rich man to come in so they could sing his praises. A juju musician’s income comes only partly from a fee. A substantial part comes from being “sprayed” by the audience, a Nigerian term for throwing money at a performer.

Mr. Okundaye also recalled the walks back home from West End Coliseum, for at the time he and Mr. Adé shared a room. Back then the streets of Lagos were still brightly lit, he said. “Lagos was safe back then,” he said. “You could walk anywhere, any time of night. So much has changed.”

West End Coliseum is no longer; it was demolished to make space for Eko Bridge, the second bridge connecting the mainland to the island, which was finished in 1975. In fact, most of the hubs of Lagos’s night life from the last century have disappeared. Mr. Adé’s own Ariya nightclub closed in 2003, when agbero boys (local hoodlums) started extorting the visitors and vandalizing their cars. And the fences of Miliki Spot, the venue of the other juju giant, Ebenezer Obey, now display the banners of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, inviting passers-by to come and worship.

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The Carter Bridge that Mr. Adé used to walk across. Credit Tom Saater for The New York Times

Some venues, however, have remained. One of them is Victor Olaiya’s Stadium Hotel. Every Saturday night, the brass sounds of high-life music (a jazzy style that originated in Ghana) reverberate in this open-air nightclub close to the National Stadium in the middle-class neighborhood of Surulere.

“Sit back and relax to hear the best of high-life music,” is how the band leader Gbenga Afere welcomed the audience on a recent night. The tables on the veranda around the terrazzo dance floor were mostly occupied by elderly people. A man in a white traditional agbada robe tapped the rhythm with his cane, and a woman accessorized in gold — from her eye shadow and jewelry to her strappy sandals — danced while seated on her straight-back chair, bobbing her head and waving her arms.

The dance floor was never empty, even when it started to drizzle. A buxom old woman in a tight black dress had trouble shuffling down the three steps onto the dance floor, but once her hips started gyrating she seemed to shake off her age. As she kicked off her slippers and her moves intensified, it was easy to imagine her as a young girl in the 1950s who went dancing at West End Coliseum where the immensely popular Victor Olaiya and His Cool Cats, with Mr. Olaiya on trumpet, also used to play.

At 1:30 a.m., the same time always, Mr. Olaiya himself entered the club and sat down at a table to listen to the house band. On some nights, he even joins them on stage. People come to greet him like an old respected friend. The trumpets and saxophones glinting in the moonlight and the gentle swing of the songs that go on and on get the audience into a trancelike state, frozen somewhere in the past, that makes it easy to keep dancing till dawn.

Mr. Olaiya, now 84, is not only the most famous Nigerian exponent of high-life music but was a mentor to many of the later Lagos musicians. It was from Mr. Olaiya that Mr. Adé bought his first guitar for one pound and nine shillings, Mr. Adé notes in his memoir.

Casa do Fernandez, one of the most eye-catching examples of Brazilian architecture in Lagos, was built in the mid-19th century by freed slaves who had returned from Brazil. This building’s ornamental pilasters and window arches are now crumbling, most glass in the balcony doors has been replaced by wood or cardboard and the wrought-iron balustrades are rusting away. The monumental two-story house on Tinubu Square, in the heart of Lagos Island, is rapidly decaying.

This is where Mr. Adé got his guitar. Mr. Olaiya’s family had bought the building in the 1930s, and his instrument shop used to be on the busy square. Now the space is divided into little shops selling electronic printers, copy paper and reels of fabric. Bursts of hooting rise from the yellow three-wheeled vehicles all around and pedestrians jostle to avoid oncoming traffic.

“These are the roots of juju music,” said Ade Bantu, pointing out the area beyond the decaying house. The 44-year-old hip-hop and Afrobeat musician was referring to the Popo Aguda quarter, where the returnees from Brazil had settled. Besides the architecture, they brought maracas and samba rhythms, which melded with Yoruba music into juju.

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Mr. Bantu first saw Mr. Adé perform at the funeral of a great-grandmother in 1978. “I saw adults losing it while dancing to his music,” he said.

Regretting that so little is left of the vibrant music scene of King Sunny Adé’s heyday, he is trying to revive it with Afropolitan Vibes, a monthly concert with various Nigerian artists in Freedom Park, about half a mile from Tinubu Square, which attracts thousands of Lagosians.

“We want to bring back the good old days when you could go club-hopping for live music in Lagos all weekend long,” Mr. Bantu explained. He would love to have the king of juju play to the younger crowd at Afropolitan Vibes, but doubts this will happen.

“He is a very hard man to get and I don’t think we can afford his fees,” he said. Mr. Bantu smiled when he said it, as a megaphone on a pole across the street from Casa do Fernandez announced minibuses to the mainland, a route that would take them past the path King Sunny Adé once walked after a marathon performance: “Iddo-Oyingbo! Iddo-Oyingbo!”

This Post Originally Appeared On TheNewYorkTimes – All Rights Reserved

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