King Sunny Ade & His African Beats: “Ase” (Aura, 1984)
On my way home from the cat shelter tonight, I stopped for a quick dinner at Leo’s Coney Island (if you don’t know, “Coney Island” is Southeast Michigander for “diner”). I was re-reading an old David Foster Wallace essay about the adult film industry’s annual awards show, and in the next booth, two guys were engaged in a rather one-way conversation about religion. I couldn’t hear the occasional question asked by the quiet one, but the loud one seemed to be at that point in very early adulthood where one has—at last!—figured everything out.
Actually, he made a number of good points, as people who are willing to question themselves often do, and I couldn’t help liking the way he asserted that every religion is just a little piece of knowledge, and you only get anything close to a full picture when you look at all of them. That’s an interesting idea, though I’m not sure how clear the full picture would be.
I have my own views on religion, but it got me thinking about music in terms I’ve actively tried to avoid for quite a few years, namely the idea of music as a whole thing. I think the idea of music as a whole thing—something that could be explored to its edges—appealed to me when I was younger and in the first acquisitive flush of fandom. The notion that you can hear it all is absurd, of course, and it’s one that slowly falls away the more you hear.
It seems plausible at the start, though, when you only know a few bands and haven’t yet seen a mile-long list of new releases for the week, and how much music could possibly have come out of all those other countries out there anyway? But then you start peeking around corners and each one reveals a dozen new corners, and you also start to realize that a lot of music happens outside the range of recording devices. Like, Baka Pygmies have been singing their mushroom gathering songs in the middle of the forest for hundreds of years, and that’s really where the notion of music as a neat body of work you can explore systematically breaks down completely.
These days, I like knowing that I’ll never hear everything, not least because new music is being made all the time. It just means I’ll never run out of corners to look around, and I’m bound to keep finding things that interest me.
The idea that you can hear everything often happens in microcosm with new discoveries—it was definitely like that with me when I first heard Fela. I figured there was a limit to the amount of great music I could hear from Nigeria. But I was so wrong. There is no limit, and at the time I didn’t even realize that the country produced musicians who were a whole lot more popular than Fela himself, and just as distinctive.
King Sunny Ade was one of those artists, one of the great juju musicians of his era, and one of the few to manage a crossover into Western markets—his crossover success is only surprising if you don’t consider the fact that songs like “Ase” play quite easily next to the Talking Heads and other stuff that was popular in the West in the early 80s. It’s actually pretty likely that was because some of that music was influenced by his own 70s recordings, and his passing fame in the US was a rare and welcome instance of a shadow influence getting his due.