The King and I – A Tribute To King Sunny Ade On His 69th Birthday

By Gbenga X Adebija

imageThe arena erupted with applause when he entered.
It was a gathering of mostly the upper crust in society and there were top shots from virtually every sector of the economy.
At least three hundred eyeballs zoomed in and fixated on the slim and trim figure dressed in green jacket over white pants and white shoes.
King Sunny Ade.
A legend with a towering reputation and a glittering track record(pardon the pun)of accomplishments, nationally and around the world.
The Chief Host sat the King at the next table from me, presenting an opportunity to see him better.
Was he there as a guest or a performer?
My attention was totally riveted on the King and I blanked out everything else.
He carefully crossed one leg over the other and looked around the venue of the event, acknowledging the salutations of the guests.
After some minutes, I nudged my wife, Yetunde.
“I want to go and speak with King Sunny Ade” I said.
Yetunde shook her head.
“Let him settle down first” she advised.
Time went by…
About ten minutes later, I made my move.
Before Yetunde could protest, I slid into an empty seat beside KSA.

Adebija and KSA
Adebija and KSA
A group of press photographers huddled around started clicking away in a frenzy and flashbulbs exploded around us.
The King greeted me warmly and we shook hands as I introduced myself.
I told him how much I loved his music and guitar wizardry ever since I was a child.
Even though, he must have heard the same sentiments millions of times before, KSA clasped his hands together and bowed
”All thanks be to God” he responded.
Then silence.
I did not know what else to say in the presence of such a legend. There were a million and one things I wanted to say, but I could not get the words out.
Dimly, I recalled a similar situation several years ago when on a trip to Stamford Bridge, home of Chelsea Football Club, I had met superstar footballer, Gianfranco Zola at the club’s car park.
It was back in 2000 and Yetunde and I were on honeymoon in the UK.
Zola had actually stopped me to say hello(years later and I was still in a state of shock!) and was gracious enough to pose for a photograph.
His minders had quickly hustled him away before I could really talk to him.
Meanwhile KSA continued to beam at me. No doubt he was used to star-struck fans.
“What happened with Island Records? They were grooming you to be the next Third World Superstar after Bob Marley, not so?” I asked
KSA, surprised, nodded. “Yes, that was the plan, but there were too many issues and the politics was just too much” he said.
Jackpot! Focus on the King’s career…
“Is that also why Stevie Wonder played harmonica on one of your albums? To give it an international flavour and global acceptance?
KSA’s eyes again showed his surprise.
“That was a good one” he confirmed. “We recorded the track in Nigeria and took it to Stevie Wonder in the US to add the harmonica solo”
Another question I wanted to ask slipped into my mind.
“Do you remember the show you had in Canada back in 1983 which also featured Peter Tosh, James Brown and The Police?”.
KSA smiled broadly. “ Yes, I remember!”
He looked quizzically at me. “How did you know about that show?”
His eyes roved across my face.
I had an idea that he was trying to guess my age and how old I would have been in 1983.
“How about that movie about two American boys who wanted to meet you”?
KSA doubled up with laughter. “OC and Stiggs” he exclaimed. “Yes, that was good”.
“It came out around, was it in 1988?”I asked.
KSA’s eyes narrowed in deep thought for a few moments.
“I988” he confirmed.
I stole a sideways glance at my wife. She was watching us with rapt attention, evidently wondering what KSA and I were discussing so intently.
I looked back at KSA. He was really enjoying himself and appeared quite delighted that I knew so much about his career.
I was on a roll so I fired another question at the King.
“Do you remember the Reggae Sunsplash at Crystal Palace in 1985? You performed with the likes of Dennis Brown and Maxi Priest “
By this time, KSA had become used to my line of questions.
“That was our first time at Reggae Sunsplash” he responded with a smile. “It was a great experience”.
“I felt proud to be a Nigerian when I watched that show” I told KSA. “Your performance was simply amazing”.
Now, it was KSA’s turn to ask a question.
“What exactly do you remember about the show?”
I did not hesitate.
“Your drummer played a double kick on the bass drum, giving your sound an afro-beat flavour, just like Fela”.
KSA looked impressed.
“That is true” he said softly.
“Why don’t you use a pick when you play the guitar?”
The King smiled broadly.
“I don’t know… I have never used a pick and I don’t think I ever will”.
He mimicked himself playing the guitar and I noticed that famous right thumb, crooked from years of strumming guitar strings.
“Ah, that thumb! Let me see it” I said.
KSA stopped “playing” and held out his right thumb. It was indeed bent out of shape.
“Well, this can never be straightened again” I joked.
KSA burst into laughter
“Not likely! Not after all these years”!
I joined in the laughter.
Amazing how easy it was to speak with a legend like KSA.
He had a simplicity and humility which belied his magnificent achievements.
I stood up and the King immediately did likewise. “It was really nice speaking with you sir” I said with feeling.
I was still awed by the sincerity of his personality.
KSA bowed low.
“May God continue to grant us his graces” he intoned softly.
I made my way back to my seat but still continued to stare fixedly at KSA until Yetunde and I had to go home.
Afterall, it is not everyday that you get to meet a legend and a King.

First published in ThisDay newspaper in 2006

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