Juju music maestro, King Sunny Ade, shares his life experiences in this interview with ADEOLA BALOGUN
A lot of people might find it very difficult to believe that you are 67 with your looks; what is the magic?
There is no magic; I just find myself like this. It’s true people tell me that I don’t look my age and whenever they say so, I get back home and look at myself in the mirror. But within myself, I know I am old. Truth is, I don’t have any magic than to give God the glory for a good health.
Maybe you do sports to keep you in shape.
Well, I wouldn’t call myself a sports man in that sense but I love sports. Within my compound, I have a squash court, tennis court, small basketball court and other outdoor sports but that doesn’t mean I do sports often. The stage alone is enough sport where I dance and jump all over the place. I think that I am just lucky because I don’t wake up in the morning and do any exercise like a workout.
Before some artistes go on stage, they either drink some stuff or smoke to be able to perform very well. What do you depend on that makes you do what you do on stage?
Let me just put it this way that I am just lucky. I don’t drink and I don’t smoke. I don’t do drugs and I don’t like people who do drugs. Even within my band, ordinary cigarette smoking irritates me; I don’t like it. I believe that music on its own is enough to make me high because I love doing it with passion. I don’t need any drug to make me high on stage. I am addicted to music without necessarily taking anything to make me high.
Do you have a particular eating habit or diet to keep you in this athletic shape?
No, I tell people now that I have put on weight but they don’t believe me especially when I watch my past videos. I just don’t know why I have this shape because I don’t have a specific time of eating. As I am talking to you now, I have not eaten anything since yesterday. Occasionally, I eat late and anytime I wake up is when I have my breakfast no matter the time of the day. I don’t have any eating pattern and whenever I want to eat, I don’t eat much because I would be thinking that I would not be able to sleep.
What was your dream as a young boy?
When I was young, I wanted to be an engineer and at the same time, I wanted to be a lawyer. At another time, I wanted to be a doctor. In fact, there was no time I wanted to be a musician because being born into royalty, it was unthinkable to think that way. But I loved music; I loved dancing and people who danced. I loved to dance to any kind of music. Then as a young boy of seven or eight, I used to pray for branded vans promoting new products like Michelin, to come to my community where I could listen to music and watch people dance. At times, I would just join to dance and people would be clapping for me. I would forget myself so much until one relative came along to pull my ears or beat me for dancing around. So, when I realised that nobody in the family wanted me to dance or watch those who danced or played music, it did not occur to me to wish to become a musician. I thought I would be a good lawyer because nobody won me over in any argument. At the same time too, I thought I would be an engineer because then, you would find me at any refuse dump where I would be looking for used wire and batteries which I coupled together to produce light. Then I would like to know what was doing the talking in the radio and people thought I would end up as an engineer. I learnt carpentry and painting.
How? What of school?
I was going to school but anytime I closed, I went to the carpentry workshop to learn. During holidays too, I was always at the workshop working. Again, I had a brother who repaired motorcycles and his shop was beside where I was learning carpentry. I more or less was learning so many things at the same time.
But why did your parents take you to the carpentry workshop to learn even when you were schooling?
No, it was on my own. I was very bright at school because the little I could read was enough for me to pass. Once I did my homework, I would dash across to the workshop and learn. Despite this, I never failed in school except once when my teacher intentionally failed me. I reported him to the headmaster and the teacher was sacked. We were 39 in class and the teacher said I came 14th instead of being in the first three. Even at that, how could I be said to have failed in the 14th position out of 39? It looked very strange to me and I walked into the headmaster’s office and reported the teacher. After reporting the man, the headmaster told me not to tell anybody and that he knew what to do. I just discovered that I didn’t see the teacher again; it was later that I learnt that the teacher had been sacked.
But as a bright boy, why didn’t you proceed to the university?
That was my dream and intention. You know, I lost my father when I was young and I loved my mum so much that I thought it would be a burden for her to continue to fund my education alone with that of my siblings. So, out of pity for her, I decided to be doing something to help rather than depending on her to cater for me. When I was still very young in school, my mother who used to weave aso oke always gave me new cloth for my school uniform every term with different designs. I joined the Boys Brigade and during the holidays, we used to go to the white people’s home like the DO (District Officer) for any job and sometimes, they would dash us some money. I used to go to the farm to look for bamboo to make cages for the birds that I caught. I would then give out the birds together with the cage and asked to be given anything in exchange. I wanted to go to the university; in fact when I ran to Lagos from Abeokuta, my people back home thought I was in the University of Lagos. When I was leaving Abeokuta for Lagos, I actually told some colleagues that I was going to Lagos to try my luck but that if my family asked of me, they should tell them that I gained admission to University of Lagos. For almost three years, my family thought I was in the university in Lagos. It was not until I formed my own group that an uncle came and asked me whether I was actually Sunny Ade. I said yes and he said how come; what happened to your university education? I said well, I had to take to music when I could no longer pay myself through school. He almost slapped me, accusing me of lying to the family that I was in school. Then I now made him to sit down and explained to him and he understood and promised to tell the family what I was actually doing. My family didn’t approve of what I was doing for almost 15 years until I really made the name. They found it difficult to know that I was actually Sunny Ade instead of Sunday Adeniyi. Again in those days, they could only hear you on the radio; the television then, WNTV was very competitive for everyone to be featured. My mother insisted that I must go to school instead of playing music. She asked me how I wanted my father to feel in the grave that his son was only good enough to sing instead of being a lawyer or an engineer as the case may be.
So how did you convince them to agree?
They finally agreed because I did not smoke nor drink. In those days, musicians were considered to be dropouts and drunkards and never-do-wells. But I promised them that I would not mess up and I thank God today that families actually want their children to sing and become big musicians. They would not only assist in showing physical support and encouragement, they would hire pastors to pray for their success especially in the various reality shows going on.
Why did you run to Lagos?
I went to Abeokuta from Osogbo together with my former boss by name Idowu Owoeye during the coronation of the then Oba Gbadebo. Unfortunately, we got stranded; there was no money to go back to Osogbo or anything to eat. I had maybe just one shilling with me and I decided to come to Lagos to try my luck. I knew a member of Moses Olaiya’s band back then who left for Lagos a year earlier. So, when I got to Lagos, I was looking for Moses Olaiya but instead of being taken to him, I was taken to Dr. Victor Olaiya. When I got to him, he asked what he could do for me and I explained to him that I was from Osogbo looking for Moses Olaiya. Until I became Sunny Ade years later, that was when I told Dr. Olaiya how I knew him when he was coming to play in Osogbo. Each time he came to Osogbo to play, I was the one holding his trumpet for him. He normally called me Big Boy which was a way of sounding nice because as the youngest member of Moses Olaiya’s band, I was very tiny. I would hold the trumpet and follow him to his hotel, asking for nothing. I just loved the way he played and handled the instrument. He didn’t want it dirty at all and he still does so. I went in search of the band member of Moses Olaiya who I traced to Lagos originally. His name was Ayodele; when I got to his house, I was informed that he went out and I decided to wait for him. When he came back, he introduced me to Moses Olaiya and that was the time they were going for a show. They allowed me to follow them and luckily for me, the guy that was playing the konga was a blind man and my arrival was like coming to help him. Apart from playing the konga, he also sang, so when I came, I would play the konga while he sang. Anytime I played the konga, my boss was very happy and that was how I started.
When would you say you had a breakthrough in music?
I would say it was when I did Challenge Cup around 1968/70. My music was quite different from any other and people started asking: who is this? When I did the first record, Alaanu Loluwa; it was a single. I did another one and when I did the next one for Challenge Cup where Flaming Flamingos of Chief Adebajo participated, that was the first time I had a gold disc because we sold more than 500,000 copies. I would call that the breakthrough; I did another one and that was when the media called me Master Guitarist. From then, there hasn’t been any stop.
Who taught you how to play the guitar?
God. Nobody taught me how to play guitar; even drumming, dancing, singing, nobody. I just found myself doing all those things because of the passion I had for music. I was steadfast in teaching myself all of these because I realised that I had to get it right more so when the family did not support it. I also realised that there was no way I could go to the university without playing music; so I vowed to excel and thought that if I eventually went to the university, I would still be doing music part time.
But guitar is not something you buy in the market and start playing immediately; how did you make it?
I was the youngest member in the band of Moses Olaiya; I went to Dr. Victor Olaiya’s shop to buy my first guitar with about three pounds or so. It was a brand new acoustic guitar and I put it on continuous practice. I loved I K Dairo music and the type of music we were playing in Moses Olaiya’s band was I K Dairo music, so I started picking the string one by one and anytime someone was playing guitar, I would watch their fingers and how they were doing it. I also loved the music of now Pastor Dele Ojo, I would pick something from him on my guitar. Then my boss could play highlife guitar and I watched him too. My boss chose some of us to be in the theatre by the time we formed theatre group and I was the one leading the music aspect; then I would play guitar, sing and dance. I always liked to hide my guitar from my boss because I didn’t want him to have funny ideas about me. Sometimes, I would play my guitar in the midnight even though some people said the spirit would slap anyone doing so at that particular time. But I reasoned that if it was true, the spirit should have been slapping every musician playing late into the night. I taught myself for about three years and it was a hard work.
Anyone listening to your music would appreciate a lot of folklore and traditional elements in the songs; how did you achieve this?
A lot of people helped. You know in Osogbo where I also lived and also in Ondo here, there are a lot of traditional festivals, folk songs and different kinds of traditional things going on. Again, as someone that wanted to have a unique type of style, I loved to go very deep in search of the elements and the origin of the songs. Sometimes, I would go to bookshops and buy Yoruba books especially books written by people like D.O. Fagunwa; the Alawiye series. I loved to sing songs that would convey pure and deep Yoruba language, not slangs. In fact, I loved writing the songs on blackboard during rehearsals with my band. When I was fully in music, I prayed to be like Frank Sinatra as a musician because people loved and respected him. I studied what he did to command such respect.
Why are you so close to almost all Yoruba obas? Is it because of being from a royal family?
I believe God gave me that and till now, I still don’t know why they all love me. I am the son of all the obas and I respect them because obas are born. As a Yoruba boy and being a royal blood, one must know how to behave in their presence. Whenever I go to the Oba of Benin, he is always the one that beckons to me to come closer to him. He would say but I knew him as a permanent secretary, so why keeping a distance and I would say that was when he was just a prince.
I am sure all the obas would want to give you chieftaincy titles…
You know as a royal blood, I cannot be a chief again but somehow some still offer me and what I do is that I would help some people to help me explain why I could not take titles. But I don’t reject outright because that is a sign of disrespect.
Recently, you and Ebenezer Obey performed together in Ole ku concert; that is what would not happen when two of you were seen as rivals in the juju music industry.
We have always been good friends but you the media and our fans created whatever you thought was rivalry between us based on our records and songs. It is people that read meanings to everything we did. When he became pastor, I held the fort for him and when he decided to come back to the house, he met the house intact and we played together. We showed to the whole world that we are friends and we have performed together at other places.
Are you not afraid for the future of juju music which is not multiplying like fuji?
With respect to fuji music and the practitioners, it was taken from juju music. Juju music is very expensive unlike fuji in terms of instruments. For fuji, you can assemble the instruments so easily unlike juju where you would need at least four or five guitars to start. Today, you cannot find a good guitar for N40,000. Again, juju is played in some environment such as hotels and club houses like in the days of old. And if you want to rent instruments, you cannot spend less than N250,000 per show on instruments alone. A lot of people still play juju but the problem is that most of us have gone to church.
But with the way things are going now, you too may join them.
I am in the church already; I have never left the church but I play juju. Those that got special anointing left juju and went to church which is good. I had been a church person as a member of Cherubim and Seraphim but now I am a member of the Redeemed Christian Church of God. While I was looking for fame, I sang all sorts of songs like the ogun and other songs that I thought people would accept. But in the record, E kilo fomode, I sang about oro and egungun which I did not even know about. I sang all those just to gain acceptance, nothing more. There is no record I did without singing the praise of God.
When you did Ekilo fomode, people said you were referring to Emperor Peter.
The omode record was already out before Emperor Peter came; people just read meanings into it. Peter himself said in one interview that I must have been referring to him as Omo ode when Dele Abiodun sang the song somewhere. In fact, I did not know him for many years until I saw him in Ondo here. I never knew him before I sang the song. The song Omode is just a warning to all children to know what to do and not to do to avoid regret.
All along, you always have gospel track in your album; are you afraid of abandoning secular music to go into full gospel like your colleague, Chief Ebenezer Obey?
I have always been a gospel singer all my life. At the same time, I believe my music wins souls for God. I don’t believe I have to become a pastor, an evangelist or church owner before I can win souls. It’s true a lot of people want me to become an evangelist but I am yet to get the call. What I pray for is to hear a genuine call because some wicked people can try mischief and concoct a call. What I need is to get a call and be prepared for it. When I hear the call, it is then that it will be extremely easy for me to go into full gospel.
In other climes, those that have not done a quarter of what you have done for more than 50 years fly private jets. Is it that musicians here cannot achieve such no matter how they try?
Well, we have problem with royalties, piracy and other issues in the industry. They don’t have all these problems in other places. Over there, once you have a hit record, other companies will come and bombard you with every of your needs. They will manage you; even lawyers will come, so also are the record companies. You don’t even have to say you want a jet, they will ask you what type of jet you want and they will bring it to you. They believe that what you have is a serious business for all the players in the industry. But in Nigeria, we are all self-made artistes; we promote ourselves, do everything. It is quite worrisome because if you use about N3m to make a record, even before you finish working on it, it is in the market already with pirates feasting on it. And some of us musicians too, we can be desperate when we need money by going to record companies to sign unreasonable terms.
Was there anytime in your career that you felt like quitting because of frustration?
Of course, everyday is not Christmas; it is normal to have lows and highs but I don’t carry such around. Even when playing, something unpleasant may happen but I always believe tomorrow will be better.
How has fame shaped your life?
I respect people and I also respect myself. Because of fame, I am always careful of what I do anywhere because of the consciousness that a popular person is always under watch. It’s like one has to live a special life. If you say you don’t smoke, you better don’t come close to where they are smoking. If you are drinking Coca-Cola, be careful so that when you pour it in a glass, people will not think it is beer.
When you and Onyeka Onwenu did a song, Wait for me, there was a rumour that you two had an affair…
That was the gimmick we used for that particular record to be widely accepted. Because the collaboration was very unusual, people were thinking we were dating but we were not. People were thinking we were getting married until the record came out. Onyeka is a very good friend and an energetic musician. The song was sponsored by Hopkins University in Maryland, USA and we even went there to collect the award together.
I read it somewhere where you warned young men to be wary of women; did you give the advice out of a personal experience?
Not really but if you look around, it is the reality. I reckon that it is better to have the number of children one can care for. In those days of our forefathers, the more children they had, the more wealth they would get. But nowadays, paying school fees alone is no joke and the children too want to use all manner of sophisticated phones.
At 67, are you looking at retirement soon?
No musician can retire until they are old or something happens. Music is in the blood and it is in the reservoir.