King Sunny Ade: I never tasted poverty
The appointment was for 10 a.m. at the Chinese Restaurant of the Ikeja Airport Hotel, Ikeja, Lagos. Like the two previously rescheduled appointments, The Spectator team was not so sure if this particular one would hold. We just drove to the venue on a 50:50 probability scale. It's not as if King Sunny Ade was reluctant to talk, but something would happen at the 11th hour and the appointment would be shifted.
This might not be different because the previous night, a Monday, the juju music legend had performed all night at the Lagos Island Club, closing the show at 6a.m. Tuesday, the day of the twice-rescheduled interview. He King, at this hour, should be sleeping, we thought. Despite our doubts, we got to the restaurant at the nick of time. But the place was empty.
Except for two men at the far corner of the restaurant who seemed engrossed in a discussion. There was no chance in hell for us to know who they were from that position. They were backing us. The older of the two men wore a light green T-shirt atop a matching pair of trousers, a sling around his neck.
“I'm not sure KSA will make this appointment again, oga,” Biodun Adeyewa, The Spectator's photo editor, feeling dejected as we made to settle around a table in the hall. Then, the man in green T-shirt turned and announced, “KSA is here my brothers. Please, come over here.” We virtually flew to the table.
Pleasantries over, we settled for business, over a steaming breakfast buffet. “Did you sprain your neck?” I enquired, pointing at the sling on the legend's neck.
“Not really,” he replied promptly as he yanked off the sling. “After hanging the guitar on my neck for 40 years, I have developed constant pain in the neck. So, after each show, I have to put on the sling (to alleviate the pain).”
Apart from the sling, Sunny Ade's 63-year-old body frame has no signature of stress or the drudgery of life that scores of his age mates would have manifested. Like their eyes would have become rheumy and their skin sagging, accentuating their years.
Not even the fact that KSA live in a reversed natural order, working at night and sleeping during the day has taken any toll on him. “It is the work of God,” says Sunny Ade, who lost his father at the age of eight, rather philosophically. “I'm contented with the life God has given me. My job has also helped me a great deal. It is the grace of God.” Indeed, all you need to appreciate the quantum of God's grace in the life of this illustrious son of Ondo Town in Ondo State is a cursory look at the man's gargantuan leaps on the sand of time.
Born Sunday Adeniyi Adegeye on September 1, 1946, in Oshogbo, the Osun State capital, King Sunny Ade dropped out of Saint Charles Grammar School, Oshogbo, in 1963, to play with popular Nigerian comedian, Moses Olaiya, who was then a Lagos-based juju musician. The name of Olaiya's band was the Federal Rhythm Dandies. After perching with the group for about three years, he gained his freedom and formed his own band, Sunny Ade and His Green Spots Band, in 1966. He renamed the band, African Beats in 1974. A year later, he left Take Your Choice, TYC, the music company of the late firebrand high Egba Chief, Bolarinwa Abioro, to found his own label, Sunny Alade Records.
The move triggered a bitter feud between him and his mentor who sued him. The court clamped a nine-month recording ban on Sunny Ade. With that forced recording holiday, the young but highly talent juju music star took his band on a whirlwind tour of Europe and America, setting his audiences in all the major cities he performed stomping the dance floor like some spirit-possessed throng. He dominated shows with his scintillating hybrid of western pop and traditional African music that incorporates electric guitars and synthesizers with such indigenous instruments as talking drums.
Sequel to his long absence from the Nigerian music scene, the rumour mills went abuzz with a satanic rumour that Sunny Ade had gone raving mad and was chained to a bed in a psychiatric hospital abroad. Much as his associates assured his teeming fans at home and abroad that all was well with the King Of World Beats, the satanic rumour persisted. It subsided after some time and Sunny's teeming fans found some rest. But it wasn't long before another wicked rumour rose from the ashes of the dead one like a phoenix. King Sunny Ade had died, the evil authors peddled. And the legend's teeming fans went into mourning.
To put a final stop to the shenanigans from the enemies' camp, Sunny Ade made a triumphal return to Nigeria. A mammoth crowd welcomed him back home. Shortly after, he released his chartbuster, Mo ti mo. There was no stopping the king. His fame spread, both at home and abroad, like a wild fire in harmattan. In 1982, he expanded the frontiers of his music business by signing and sealing a recording and promotional deal with Island Records in America. The group, which had on his stable several of the world's greatest acts, took the juju music maestro on a playing tour of several American and North American cities, during which he earned the sobriquet, 'The African Bob Marley'.
Sadly, the romance didn't last long as Island Records and KSA disagreed sharply on his future and artistic direction. And for one decade, the superstar released his records on his own label and maintained his dominance of the music scene in Nigeria. The highly creative musician berthed in Atlantic Records in 1996 where he sealed another deal to release some records under the company's subsidiary-Mesa/Bluemoon. He released three-E Dide/Get Up, Odu and Seven Degrees- on the new label.
So far, King Sunny Ade, whose eventful four-year tenure as president of the Performing Musicians Association of Nigeria, PMAN, terminated in 2002, has close to 120 super hits to his credit. This is not to count the numerous singles he released on his way to national and global stardom as one of the best musical export out of Africa, nay, Nigeria.
During the two-encounter, the juju music legend spoke on virtually every issue under the sun, starting from his childhood days when he would escape from his school, Saint Charles Grammar School, Oshogbo, and trek 20 miles to Ilesa, just to see his music idols , C.A. Balogun and I.K. Dairo, both late, play.
He also spoke, for the first time, on his women and why he, some years back, sentenced the six wives to their individual apartments in his sprawling house in Bariga, Lagos.
Well, as they say, the taste of the pudding is in the eating. Enjoy the no-holds-barred interview.
At 63, you look so athletic. What has kept you going?
Let me just thank God for his grace. My secret is simply God's glory. I mean, God's blessing. I actually don't know how I have turned this way. But what I keep doing, like what my mother do hammer into my head is, “you cannot carry the burden of the whole world into your head because you can't carry it”. This simply means that our life is like a computer, and if care is not taken, if you store too much information in it, without freeing some space, it will crash. So, over the years, I have learnt to just keep doing what I think is right and be very plain. I have no space in my heart to harbour any grudge.
Another important factor is that you must always see your neighbour as the same creation of God as yourself. When your mind is free, you will have fewer burdens to carry. But if you carry too many things in your heart, you would end up doing nothing and you will crash. I also have to add that I don't joke with my exercise. My exercise is very important to me though I might not be consistent. Take for example; I have been performing for 40 solid years. For most part of those 40 years, I have always been on my feet, all-night, on the stage for many hours, dancing without rest.
That has been of great help to my body. I also do other games too, like golf, all of which, I believe, has contributed so much to my health. Meanwhile, another added advantage is that my father and mother are slim by stature and that has rubbed off on me too. This notwithstanding, it does not stop one from gaining weight because I believe if you are comfortable, you find yourself adding more flesh. But I have learnt to free myself from unnecessary burden. I have learnt to give myself rest. At the same time, I also see my fans as my examiners. I look out for what they love and keep doing it. My fans love to see me as fit as fiddle. They love to see me dancing. They love to see me active. To the glory of God Almighty, who gives health, I have not let them down.
You have just talked about contentment and fulfillment, what are your unfulfilled dreams?
Well, I am still thanking God simply because he is still gives me life. But I sometimes look at the area of how I can help people. I overheard you when you were discussing on phone on how you intend helping someone, and that struck me on my plans to find a big solution to the little problem of our people. Sometimes, my intention is to have a school where education would be free, but I am still begging God for this to be fulfilled. At the same time, we have so many old people who hardly can work and who the various governments in the country have abandoned. I intend helping people like this. In my area of profession, I am looking at something to do for those who want to play music but are not privileged. These are the few things that come to mind. But I don't know when all these will come to pass.
We know you give people scholarship, but for this school that you have just talked about, it is a step further. So, if eventually, the dream comes through, where would you site such school? Is it in Ondo or Lagos?
A school is a school. Anywhere the school would be is okay, as long as it is on the planet of the earth. Take for example, I was born in Ondo Sate but I schooled in Oshogbo, Osun State. In this case, if I am now saying it has to be in one particular place, then I would be introducing tribalism into it. I believe a school is a school. In those days, when someone can come from the North to school in Lagos, or when someone would leave Lagos for the East, and the journey was through train at that time. Sometimes, if we want to go by road, you go with AMES, which later became Airmail, and now NIPOST. So, I don't know why I should tribalise it. The school can be sited anywhere the people accept me to do that.
We would like to go back to where we started- keeping fit. We discovered that your tea is plain; it has no sugar or milk. Does this help your health and looks too?
When you are in a Chinese Restaurant like this, this is the tea they normally give to you. But I do believe that too much of these sweet things would normally kill.
Even too much of water can kill...
(Laughs heartily...) Well, I don't know about that. What I know is that when you drink too much, you can be uncomfortable for a while. Talking about fatness, about some 20 years ago, in this country, if you were not fat, people would look at you as somebody who was suffering. But today, slim people are being appreciated. At a time, when I was younger, each time I looked at my pictures and I didn't see flesh in my chest, I got bitter because I like to wear T-shirts with a lovely chain that would be dangling and dazzling on my neck. At that time, I used to admire C.A. Balogun (one of the most famous musicians in the old Western Region, based in Ilesa in present day Osun State) because of his stature.
He was a tall, big man. Atimes, when he was playing, he would remove his buba and play with just his singlet with a big chain dangling on his neck. So, I wanted to be like this but it wasn't possible because I wasn't fleshy enough. But now, people are now protesting against fatness. Now, I am still slim and happy. So, be what you want you want to be and be careful.
I remember those days, in the late 1960s/early 1970s when I used to sneak out of our house in Ilesa to see your shows. The experience was always wonderful, although my father used to beat the hell out of me for sneaking out and spending the night outside. You used to come to play for the Ijesa Social Elite Club every Christmas eve then. That was where I developed my fascination for you and your music.
(…Cuts in, smiling) You mean you did that to come to my show?
Of course, yes.
Oh, I feel humbled. It means we were two of a kind. Do you know that it was that same Ilesa that I used to I trek to all the way from Oshogbo, 20 miles away, just to see a musician (C.A. Balogun) playing too? Most times, when I got there, I discovered that I was always the youngest. So, the problem remained how to get close to the musician? Meanwhile, in those days, the police wouldn't beat or harass you, but the fear of their presence was enough to scare daylight out of you. So, whenever I wanted to climb the fence to see the musician, I was always looking round very carefully just in case some policemen were coming. And if they happened to be coming and you were yet to get to the other side, you would jump down and run miles again. Meanwhile, you would still come back to try again. So, at a point, I devised a means of getting closer by helping the person handling the gas lamp to do his job, and that helped me in seeing the musician.
Were you a day student or a boarder at the school then?
I was a day student. I was staying with my parents.
So, how were you able to cope by sneaking in and out of the house?
It was always a weekend thing, and I was always lying to my parents in the house that I was going for something else. But I regretted later because I didn't know that I would also be having children who will also be lying to me. Today, I tell them too that I lied at a point in time of my life and I would not like them to do the same because they might end up regretting it in future. I make them know that lying hinder a lot of things. Take, for example, when I used to carry the gas lamp at the show, no one remembered me. I was never noticed. Who knows, maybe that happened because I was always lying to my parents at home of about where I was going.
How many years did you have to lie to watch your music idol, C.A Balogun?
Not only him, even I. K. Dairo. At that time, Baba Sala (Moses Olaiya) was in Lagos. I came to Lagos through a friend of mine that was with Baba Sala. It was through that guy I came to Lagos in 1963.
Did you know that your struggle to see those shows was preparing you for a great future in the music profession?
I actually did not know. My mission then was just to be somebody who would be able to put food on the table for my family, especially my mother, because my father died when I was still very young. My father died when I was eight years old. He was then 60 years, and left two wives. The first wife has five children and my mother had 11. But most of them died, only three survived. In fact, it is only two of us that are left now. So, I never knew I was going to play music. Rather, I saw music as a hobby. All I wanted to be was an engineer.
Were you good in the sciences?
I won't say yes and I won't say no, but my ambition was to become an engineer or a lawyer alternatively because sometimes when I argue, people say my points could thrill anybody. And back then in school we were asked to argue over a point, I always won with logical points. On the engineering part, I discovered that I loved to see everything, I love to get involved in everything. I had also loved to be a doctor but I believe that I would have been the poorest doctor in the world because I don't like to see anyone suffer. Until now, I don't mind to follow people to the hospital, as long as they not armed robbers shot by police.
Why did you choose to play music?
Since when I was five, I have loved to dance and I loved to listen to good music. At that time, I was always following my mother to the Cherubim and Seraphim, C&S, Church where I had opportunity to listen to different kinds of music.
Would you say that your growing within the Cherubim and Seraphim Church also helped what you have become?
I was always following my mother to church because I only wanted to listen to music.
Not to worship God?
When I was young? What did I know as a little boy? As a little boy, I never knew whom God was until I grew older. I was also attending a Methodist Church too because I also loved their music. I really loved music. Even up till now, I listen to all kinds of music. So, I never knew I would be a professional musician. In fact, up till now I still wonder what made me to venture into music.
Was there ever a revelation that you would become a famous musician?
In the name of God, nobody ever saw a vision for me. I am sure if I had been told that I would be a great person, I might have ended up a failure because I might have been able to work as hard as I have done up to this point.
Can you share with us the challenges you faced when you started music?
When I started professional performance is quite different from when I started playing music as a hobby. I ventured into music then because I liked music. I just loved music, then, that love later graduated to a profession. Prior to the time I started playing music for the first time in my life, I never tried my hand on any musical instrument. Meanwhile, my sister's husband had a musical group that made him patron. So, anytime they had a show in Ilesa, and I was asked to be collecting the money people used to spray the bandleader, I always used a tray.
You know, they used to spray with coins. And I love the sound if coins in the tray. It was real music. Maybe someone noticed my preference, they then put me in charge of the tray we used in collecting coins. And beside me was a man playing the conga. So, I offered to help him play it. He obliged after he asking me if I knew how to play and I told him I could. When I was about to start playing it, my mind flashed back to the way the people at the C&S church play it. So, I played it that way too and it was fantastic. The people around me couldn't believe that I could play it that way. I got everyone's attention that day. That was part of how it started.
Are you saying in essence that nobody taught you how to play the instrument?
In the name of God, nobody taught me how to play anything. I learnt all the guitars myself. Nobody taught me how to sing or play any other musical instrument. I thank God I was given from above. And that is why I respect all musicians and instrumentalists because majority of them of them were taught. As a kid, I loved the accordion that I.K Dairo was playing, and the guitar played by C.A. Balogun. I loved the way they played the instruments. It fascinated me. These are some of the things that inspired me to go round on the all the instruments.