King Sunny Adé and his African Beats, live at the Courtyard at the Museum of Fine Arts, July 15, 2009
In 1992, Nigerian juju master King Sunny Adé and his African Beats played the Park Plaza Hotel ballroom as part of the Boston Globe Jazz & Blues Festival. What I remember most vividly is the rich weave of cross-rhythms produced by a phalanx of percussionists on all manner of hand drums and traps, and the hypnotic overlap of undulating guitar lines. There were, as I recall, three guitarists including the leader, all unspooling hiccupping bluesy figures and dulcimer chords.
So I had high hopes for King Sunny's show in the MFA's Calderwood Courtyard Wednesday night. ("Finally outside!" concert manager Bess Paupeck told the crowd, after rain had moved the first three shows of the series into Remis Auditorium.) The Beats came out in sections: first a trap drummer and three percussionists laying down the rhythm, then guitar, bass, and synth, then a front line of vocalists and percussionists — all in matching green-and-blue patterned gowns and trousers. Then King Sunny himself, resplendent in blue and white with a scarlet and green headdress. The percussion rolled, the rhythm guitar kicked in, King Sunny gestured, and the band took off into a beautiful light vocal, in the manner of Ladysmith Black Mambazo's churchy riffs, Sunny shouting call-and-response with them. There were neat little heel-toe dance moves, then a break, the voices singing a cappella, taking it to a whisper. And then with a signal from the leader, the band came back in with a percussion thunderclap.
They must have played at least a half dozen numbers in that exact arrangement. The sold-out crowd of 320 or so included a smattering of folks in traditional African dress, lots of middle-aged white people (me among them), and at least one touching display of the exuberant spastic white-guy dance I associate so strongly with my g-g-generation. At times, people took to the stage to join the band and shower dollar bills on King Sunny's head — an African tradition recalled.
But King Sunny featured only a lone guitarist who solo'd sparingly, so there were none of the hypnotic extended jams I recalled. He himself didn't pick up a guitar until about 80 minutes into the 110-minute show. At that point, two female dancers joined the band, wearing brown sleeveless dresses with hip-hugging fringe. As King Sunny spelled out long bluesy guitar licks, they playfully shook their butts at the audience, and they made the fringe shake too. Then King Sunny took off his guitar. By the end, he had the whole crowd up and dancing to the grooves. Joyous and — finally — a beautiful, clear summer evening. Even if it wasn't the African Beats as I remembered them, it was a memorable night.
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