African music has been part of America’s cultural DNA since roughly 1619. But in 1982—the year Michael Jackson’s seismic “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” interpolated “Soul Makossa,” the unlikely 1972 global hit by Cameroon’s Manu Dibango—actual African music LPs were thin on U.S. ground. Cratediggers might’ve found the Soul Makossa LP, or albums by South African cultural emissaries Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela; perhaps they lucked upon Fela Kuti’s magnificently excoriating Zombie, issued by Mercury in 1977 in a failed attempt to break the artist stateside. Otherwise, the sounds on offer were less pop than ethnographic: field recordings on the Folkways and Nonesuch Explorer labels, or the handsome one-off Missa Luba LP, an independence-era snapshot of a Congolese boys choir that became a favorite among ’60s hi-fi aficionados—as did Babatunde Olatunji’s Drums of Passion, the percussion-driven firestorm that functioned as a home-study course for the Velvet Underground’s Moe Tucker, who played along to it in her suburban Long Island bedroom.
This was the backdrop—pre-internet, pre-Graceland—for King Sunny Adé’s Juju Music, a masterpiece of sublime dance music and chill-out grooves that rang the opening bell for the fruitful-if-problematic “world music” marketplace, with Adé leading a vanguard of artists who would introduce a wealth of new sounds and conversations into the American pop biosphere. Juju Music was even a relative commercial success, spending 29 weeks in the bottom half of the Billboard 200, remarkable for a record sung mainly in Yorùbá. Its creative triumph was self-evident: a radiant vortex of melodic ouroboros rhythms, dubby yet dazzling, its gentle flow so irresistible that the chiming first chords of “Ja Funmi,” the dance-trigger lead track, remains for many a musculoskeletal call-to-prayer—what, say, the paired four-note opening of “Dark Star” is for Deadheads.
West African highlife, soukous, Afrobeat, and jùjú were hardly news to local fans, expat communities, or anyone else with access to the music. (Tastemaking British DJ John Peel shopped for African LPs at Stern’s, London’s legendary music import shop, and began playing Adé’s records on his BBC Radio 1 show in the ’70s.) These styles were ongoing dialogues with the (African) American music marketed in Africa, be it rock, blues, jazz, R&B, or country, so the echoes were no accident. Sunday Adeniyi Adegeye, the son of a church organist who left high school to earn money as a drummer, was an avid listener of U.S. soul and country who started his first group, the Green Spot Band, at age 20 in 1966. Like many artists at the time, he took up the electric guitar, and by the mid-’70s, he was self-releasing modern jùjú records on his own Sunny Alade label and distributing them with Decca. When he signed with Island, he was already a wealthy, established Nigerian bandleader, with a mature fanbase buoyed by the country’s oil boom and an elegant, cosmopolitan style—a Yorùbá Philly Soul to the roughneck Afrobeat James Brown of his countryman, Fela. The sound seemed a perfect candidate for export.
Measured against Island’s ambitions, Juju Music was perhaps a letdown. Having turned reggae in …….