Legendary musician, better known as King Sunny Ade, lives as large as his title going by his sprawling country home in Ondo suggests. Nseobong Okon-Ekong recently had a rare encounter with the King of World Beat on his 68th birthday
He had not slept three days prior to our meeting at his country home in Igba, Ondo East Council of Ondo State. But there was no hint of tiredness on the iconic musician and legendary guitarist, Sunday Ishola Adeniyi Adegeye, better known as King Sunny Ade (KSA). He had been lured to Ibadan the previous night at a certain event centre along Iwo Road where a surprise birthday party was staged for him as the clock struck midnight on Monday, September 22. One of his daughters went on stage to sing and was joined by her siblings.
Unable to contain himself, the birthday ‘boy’ who was supposed to soak it all in, got up from his seat of honour, grabbed his guitar and started playing along. The merriment continued into the wee hours of the morning. He would later drive into Igba from Ibadan for a church service in a parish of the Redeemed Christian Church of God right inside his compound. With the church service over, scores of people arrived to pay homage to the King on his 68th birthday.
The tell-tale ring under his eyes and a few rows of facial wrinkles on his forehead clearly spoke of the advancement in his age, but he was far from looking weather beaten. On the contrary, he looked a few years younger. For the youthful appearance, KSA paid loads of gratitude to God for His unlimited favour. Counting his blessings, at least, since his last birthday, he thanked God for sparing his life, particularly for the fact that he had no reason to visit the hospital. For him, the music has continued to pay and he has moved several steps higher than last year.
Over the years, KSA has fashioned out a wellness routine that works well for him. Top item on his physical fitness agenda is the dance component of his work as a musician. KSA believes that dancing on stage for hours on end is very rigorous exercise. In addition, he has sporting facilities like squash, tennis and basketball courts and a swimming pool. There is a golf course, not too far away in Idanre that he also visits to exercise. But it does seem that the dance routine is the major exercise that he frequently involved in because it comes with the job. He confessed that he had not engaged in any form of sporting activity in the last one year.
With a busy work schedule that accommodates shows every month of the year, his sports date is not the only thing that KSA has not kept fate with. He has also not been able to see his doctors for medical check-up which he sometimes presents himself for, twice a year. For these and other reasons, he hates to look into the mirror for fear that he might be confronted with a physical attribute that is looking untoward. “Upon all the troubles from the shows, I am lucky to enjoy good health. I don’t drink or smoke. I am yet to sleep now for the past three days. If I go to bed, for two hours, the sleep may not come. If I am lucky to sleep and you wake me up, for four days I may not sleep again. I don’t want to go to anywhere to regularise it because if I try to regularise it, it will affect me. It will come to a new pattern. My sleeping has never been regulated before now and I don’t want to ask my God why because I don’t want to copy anybody as long as I am ok. Coming to my country home does not mean I came here to sleep. Music has already taken over that side of my life. I relax a little when I can and then I am awake. If I don’t have anything to do I will lie down on the bed or go and sit down somewhere.”
I don’t know how to use drugs. Sometimes I go to the pharmacy, until when it is getting to the expiry date, then I will be forced to give it out, particularly the multi-vitamins or supplement. Why do I need to buy all those when I know I cannot use it. I am just lucky. You are the one giving me that energy.”
Even when he is persuaded to take some multivitamins and supplements, he falls short of the strict compliance regime. Again, his busy work schedule gets in the way.
KSA has not gone on holidays for years. His heavily booking performance dates would not allow that luxury. But he has promised himself that as he gradually moves into old age, he would turn down some dates so that he can have more time to rest. One clear move that he has made in this regard is to begin a gradual move to relocate to his homestead in Igba; away from the hustle and bustle of Lagos. For now, KSA who runs an empire of businesses including real estate and construction lives more in Lagos, only coming home to Igba, a few times. “I stay more in Lagos than Ondo. It is in Lagos that I have my businesses; my office and my house too. I am planning to return gradually. I stay here now until when I sort out where I am going to operate from. I would say the house is more less like a country house for me; when I am coming I would bring my portfolio to accomplish the little job I want to do here.”
As he looks into the future, towards the landmark 70 years, KSA would not disclose what shape the celebration of his 70th birthday would take. He is open to suggestions. One thing he is sure of is that he loves to do his things in a grandiose style.
In recent times, KSA has garnered quite a good reputation for himself as a versatile musician who is able to adapt to the sounds and style of his younger colleagues. He joked that he is able to do that because he is part of the new generation. “I play along with them and they play along with me. Some days ago, I played with Olamide, Wizkid and the rest at Mo Abudu’s 50th birthday. Any new artiste is welcome to collaborate with me.”
Drawing an example from the last Glo Evergreen series where he performed a near perfect combination with D’banj, KSA revealed that the show was spontaneous and not rehearsed. “Both of us were busy. He was in South Africa. I was in Abuja. I don’t even know much about the song (one of D’banj’s earliest hits, ‘Mobolowon’), but when he came I said play the music you want to play. I listened, told him that I would come in and that is what I did. I composed the song I sang on stage that day.”
KSA thinks the world of Nigerian musicians is limitless because they are working harder to get wider acceptance for their music. “No foreign music has toppled Nigerian music. Families are now allowing their children to play music. The musician themselves now realize that they are Nigerian artistes. They don’t copy. Most of them are learning to play instruments on stage. I do not blame them because I left my guitar for a while. I am going back to it now and it happened last night, before they don’t mind to mime. Everything is within. All the music coming out now… if you don’t take from Juju, you take from highlife.”
Painting a picture of the challenges that Nigerian musicians go through, KSA said the entire music industry needs a doctor. “Some of us cannot afford musical instruments. You can’t see a very good guitar for N60,000 unless you want to buy one of less quality. For you to satisfy Nigerians with your music, you must invest in it. If people want to copy King Sunny Ade, it would be costly. Most of us who are playing on the stage every day hire instruments. And those who hire these instruments have categorised them into the A, B and C according to the level of sound that it is going to give you. Even if you have that money, if you are late somebody else will take it. That is why a lot of people resort to use DJs as back up.”
KSA who is world famous for his unique play on the guitar and has been ranked 68 on the list of world famous guitarist, explained what stands him out on the stringed instrument. He said it was something he reasoned could distinguish him from the crowd at the onset of his musical career. “I have my style of playing my guitar. If I leave guitar here, hardly can you play it because of the way I tune it. In the whole world, hardly can you find anybody playing guitar with bare hand. I decided to find my way in the beginning. I use my guitar to sing what I want to sing. Sometimes, I play rhythm in it. I play my guitar on open chord.”
With four nominations at the Grammys (only equaled by Femi Kuti), and a couple of participation in Hollywood movies, KSA is one of the leading singers who put Nigerian and African music on the world stage, when Island Records offered him a contract. The Island deal exposed KSA’s music to a global audience and led to many benefits. “They gave me that award as the King of World Beat when our music started coming to world level, it was difficult for them to classify the music. It is because of my music that they created world beat category. If they are doing jazz festival I will be there; rhythm and blues, I will be there. I am the first Nigerian to play at a world class reggae festival. They first categorized me under crossover and the people said there is nothing like crossover. They had to create world beat category.”
Parties are not the only things KSA likes to execute in grandiose proportions, like his house in Igba which is built on close to one acre of land, which is serviced by 20 staff including security personnel, cooks and house managers. He is at the head of a big band of 50 persons. “I started from five. In case of eventuality, you have a second set. Sometimes we are 23 or 22 plus the two engineers, sometimes the dancers will come; making about 30, sometimes we have the roadies, going to about 50. It is not easy to move a big band. I started moving a big band long ago. When the economy of our nation changed you need to explain even though you want to cut expenses, you must be extremely careful, so that you don’t cut today and regret tomorrow. No matter the audience we are confronted with, we play to the best of our ability. In the 80s to 90s, I moved a 28 member band abroad, not now I cut it a little bit from five dancers. Now we have two; from a 23-piece band I have 17 plus two engineers. Over there (abroad) you may find somebody who can have part of your repertoire and is able to fit in. I have experienced when I went abroad and a majority of the members of my band declined to return with me.
What I tell them is that if you are going abroad with a group and you stay back, if care is not taken you will be a loser. The moment you are there and your visa expires, the police will be after you. The moment they catch you, you are coming home and you cannot join the band again. If I want to stay abroad, I have everything to stay abroad. In Nigeria. This is you sitting down with me; we are talking and laughing. It is not done in other places. You will be struggling to fit in. When the band broke off, if I did not have foresight, it would have taken sometime for me to come back. I am at the centre of everything. When I am on foreign tour, I play nearly everyday except Mondays. The moment you say you are coming, the promoters will buy your show. When we are done we come back to play our Nigerian style, we start from 9:00pm and close at 4:00am; oyinbo will not take that from you.”
KSA who has a wife in the Lagos State House of Assembly has a funny way of explaining his marital status. Is he a polygamist? “I use to say to say that I married to one woman who represents the rest of them. The truth is that I do not know which one of them is going to leave and which of them will stay. But what I can tell you is that right now, I will not marry more wives. I am a grandfather now.” He admits that his love for music took a toll on his family. “I thank God for holding my family for me. When you are out there to serve humanity, your family suffers. When my children are going to school, that is the time I am going home to sleep. By the time they are heading back, I am already in the office or ready to go out. Weekends would have been idle meeting time for the family, but that is when my services is most sought after. I still find my way to put all the schedule apart and speak with them even on the phone.”
Going by one of his earliest recordings in which he sang the praise of the Yoruba god of iron, Ogun to high heavens, one may assume that KSA is an Ogun devotee, but he cleared up the assumption in many quarters. Last year, he built a church in his Igba home and donated it to the Redeemed Christian Church of God. Not a few eyebrows were raised at this gesture. Is he a reformed Ogun worshipper? “I did the Ogun song at a time I was searching for an identity and popularity. Ogun festival is very popular among us in Ondo. I thought if I did the song, more people from my town will identify with me. But I can tell you that my Christian upbringing has always reflected in all my songs. There is none of my albums that I do not have several tracks praising God.”