King Sunny Ade gently dissed the Joe’s Pub stage on which his 13 band members, and three dancers, were sardined. “Sometimes you have to squeeze yourself into a box of matches,” said Nigerian juju’s last giant standing. He smiled while noting the seated audience’s unusual “dignity” and then played one of the most exciting and emotionally satisfying two hours of Afropop most of us would ever experience, sandwiching an intimate “unplugged”/”storytellers” segment between segments of jaw-droppingly sophisticated drums-and-guitars latticework.
The Joe’s gig was billed as an acoustic “palm wine session,” and Ade paid homage to I.K. Dairo, Tunde Nightingale, Ojoge Daniel, and other masters of this easygoing secular drinking music. Feeling nostalgic, Ade reminisced about his early years and introduced his youngest African Beat, the grandson of the man who provided Ade with his first band’s equipment in 1966. Strapping on an acoustic guitar and surrounded by four singers, he played a laid-back set that included the traditional tunes “Obu Yoruba,” “Easy Motion,” and “Mori Sisi Meji.” He stood up, raised his microphone half a foot above his head, and, drawing the singers about him like a bluegrass band, re-enacted his first recording date (for a single that sold 13 copies) in all its youthful awkwardness.
Two nights earlier at Roseland, a slightly larger and much louder group of Beats performed uninterrupted for more than four hours at the annual Great African Ball. Some 90 minutes in, a parade of mostly Nigerian machers were allowed onstage to “spray” King Sunny and the band with several thousand dollars in small bills; in return, Ade praised his benefactors by name and improvised verses woven into a medley that expanded to symphonic proportions. Perhaps due to the pinched nerve that required Ade to wear a neck brace earlier in his tour, both shows emphasized the band’s battalion of drummers, and even Abiodun Fatoke’s spacey pedal steel licks seemed in short supply. Yet the drums and voices sounded more magnificently orchestral than ever on such Ade standards as “Ijo Ti Mojo” and “Ja Funmi,” creating a massive and unique sound no single stage could possibly contain.