King Sunny Adé & His African Beats, Ajoo
To describe female record producers as scarce on the ground is to understate the case. Female producers, as opposed to session players and record executives, are next to non-existent throughout the history of pop music. As such the central character of the otherwise regrettable feature film Laurel Canyon, Frances McDormand’s sexually omnivorous record producer, was really the stuff of myth. The women I’m aware of who run recording sessions are deeply impressive, though. Two of my favorites have real-deal engineering chops in addition to possessing good taste, a combination you’ll find not so often as you’d think with their male counterparts. Leanne Ungar has worked extensively with Leonard Cohen, has engineered soundtracks for John Sayles’ films and film composer Cliff Martinez, among others. She shaped the sound of Lewis Furey’s eponymous 1974 debut album for A&M Records; this last item exerted mammoth influence during my formative years and continues to do so. (A wonderfully informative feature/interview with Ms. Ungar ran in Tape Op, No. 30, July-August 2002.)
The other great lady producer I can name is Catherine Lesevre. She was one among a group of French bohemians — Martin Messonier, producer of King Sunny Adé’s three Island Records releases, was another in this group — who went to work as scuba divers on the oil derricks along Nigeria’s coastline, fell under the thrall of Afrobeat firebrand Fela and wound up working in Lagos' music scene. Lesevre has engineering credits on Adé’s second Island effort, Synchro System. However, she recorded and mixed the altogether more satisfying Ajoo; both were put out in 1983, with similar cover photography, though Ajoo was never released in the West.
Ajoo is among my favorite juju albums, possibly one of my favorite dance music collections, full stop. It certainly represents the most satisfying balance of Yoruban rhythms and contemporary music technology. Synthetic timbres are woven into these extended tracks with commendable subtlety and invention by Ms. Lesevre. A ray-gun pulse, which might be the coolest synth patch, ever, forms the spine of “Gbeyo-gbeyo.” The Clavinet of Doom reasserts itself during Ajoo, as do pedal steel guitar notes beamed in from the ionosphere, courtesy of NCIP favorite Demola Adepoju. Ms. Lesevre trims the sails of King Sunny’s backing vocalists and nets the best call-and-response performances found on any of Adé’s records.
When King Sunny Adé and his African Beats first toured North America in 1982, much was made of the all-night sets he and the band would play at his club in Lagos. They played sets of conventional duration in the States; little did any of us honkies know that his Nigerian audience wouldn’t have dreamed of going home in the darkness. Lagos makes Detroit (my hometown) seem like a walk in the park; the band simply had to finish in daylight, out of consideration for its audience's safety. Still, when I hear Ajoo, even now I have no problem imagining a big crowd dancing on a walled-in patio until well after those goddamned little birds start singing at 5am.
Ajoo also occasions meditation on directions not taken and aborted missions. Both Adé and his producer Martin Messonier have mentioned, in retrospect, how much the sessions for the African Beats’ final Island disc, Aura, were influenced by the sound of Michael Jackson’s globally successful Thriller. The sound concocted by Jackson and producer Quincy Jones took then-emerging synth, sequencer and signal processing technology to another level, making Thriller one of the first true examples of cyber-funk. Correspondingly, the sci-fi ambience of Adé’s Aura was not a slick patina applied to roots music like so much digital eyeshadow, but a means to update juju’s staple talking drums and electric guitars with new textures and motorik rhythms, good things both.
Most African music fans in the West, then and now a hidebound lot, found little to like about Aura. I got a big kick out of it, though, and only wished it had been longer. I still wish that Messrs. Messonier, Adé and the African Beats had been able to pursue their Blade Runner-in-Africa vision further still. They did, in fact, on the soundtrack of director Robert Altman’s ill-fated O.C. & Stiggs, filmed in 1984. Then Adé was dropped by Island — even a cameo appearance by Stevie Wonder (playing chromatic harmonica through a harmonizer on “Ase”) couldn't help Aura’s sales — and O.C. & Stiggs went (deservedly) unreleased for three years. The African Beats were then disbanded, Adé’s working relationship with Martin Messonier was terminated and a period of retrenchment began. King Sunny Adé continued to make new records at his accustomed rapid clip, but increasingly his late ‘80s albums released to the African market sounded much like one another: all of them competently played, disingenuously cheerful and, for devotees of long standing, ultimately dispiriting. False bravado and badly-tuned synthesizers permeated many of these post-Island projects, whether performed by his new Atom Park band or a later iteration of the African Beats. As Iggy Stooge once sang: No fun / My babe / No fun. To our good fortune, owing to the thoughtful ministrations of Catherine Lesevre (and the piratical archiving of No Condition Is Permanent), we have Ajoo, being Big Fun and then some.