King Sunny Ade, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

In the early Eighties, the Nigerian guitarist King Sunny Ade was the spearhead of the marketing category that became known as world music. Island Records wanted him to be its new Bob Marley, but that seemed overly ambitious, even at the time.

In the early Eighties, the Nigerian guitarist King Sunny Ade was the spearhead of the marketing category that became known as world music. Island Records wanted him to be its new Bob Marley, but that seemed overly ambitious, even at the time.

Faced with growing pressure to conform to this ideal, Ade lost his recording contract and virtually disappeared, at least from a UK perspective. Back home, he continued to build a prolific catalogue, eventually making a live comeback in America and Europe.

Even so, when asked to assist in the selection of a King of Juju best-of for Wrasse Records, Ade filled this 2002 set with tracks from his early-Eighties Island classics Juju Music, Synchro System and Aura. Presumably, with their superior studio sound, he still considers these to be his best representation.

At the RFH, Ade provided the climax to the Africa Remix season, although he pulled only a moderately sized crowd. The percussionists came on first, rapping their talking drums with slender, curved sticks, skins tautened by underarm pressure. The rest of Ade's 14-piece African Beats swarmed over the stage, taking up their places with guitars, bass, keyboards and conventional drumkit. They were all clad in flowing robes, but Sunny was remarkable for his ridiculously pointed white loafers.

The King's version of Nigerian juju music can sound unsettling on first acquaintance, infused as it is with the sound of Nashville balladry and vintage Hawaiian music. This was down to the presence of a weeping pedal steel guitar, together with Ade's percussive guitar sound, created with the aid of a capo placed halfway down its neck.

Although the tunes tripped along with a propulsive motion, Ade filled most of them with sections of high complexity, leading the band through tight staccato statements that invariably raised the level of intensity in the following hypnotic stretch. Glistening guitars interwove against a dense percussion rattle, swaying in alternate directions.

Sunny hunched over in Chuck Berry fashion, shuffling sideways in co-ordinated footwork with his drummers. The King soon revealed a taste for females of certain proportions; three dancers vibrated their way across the stage, shaking ample rears. The band soon followed their example, or fell on the floor trying.

By this point, some of the crowd were dancing down at the front of the stall seats, but this is a tough venue to crack when the aim is mass participation. Ade himself downed his guitar for the final stretch, concentrating on his distinctively sweet vocals.

On the surface, this was an enthusiastic, communicative performance, but even down in the front rows, the African Beats weren't really projecting the way they would in an all-standing venue. The crowd enjoyed Ade's bright delivery, but this gig lacked the aura of energy for which the King is renowned.

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