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Nigerian superstar King Sunny Adé returns with his big band, juju intact

Nigerian musician, singer-songwriter King Sunny Ade.
Nigerian musician, singer-songwriter King Sunny Ade.Christopher Nelson

‘King Sunny Adé is not dead.” That was the headline in one Nigerian news source earlier this spring, as rumors of the great juju bandleader’s death circulated around his homeland.

Speaking on the phone from Ondo, Nigeria, Adé laughs and has little more to say about the rumor. He’s not one for controversy, in any form. Last year he was forced to cancel his band’s first visit to the United States since 2009 when technology issues at the State Department caused temporary worldwide visa problems. No matter: He’s now considering the rescheduled trip a commemoration of his 70th birthday, which arrives Sept. 22.

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“Seventy is a special year,” says Adé, whose troupe takes the stage at the Sinclair on Wednesday. “My band has been running for 50 years now, so we’ll celebrate together.”

Since the 1960s, the heir to Yoruban royalty has been creating nimble, groove-based big-band music: initially highlife, and then juju, the percussive nightclub style characterized by prominent use of the talking drum. He became a star to Western audiences with the rise of the catch-all “world music” category in the 1980s.

A guitarist, Adé fronts as many as 50 band members in Nigeria. On tour, he’ll travel with 19. The New York Times once described the intricate thrust of his group, His African Beats, as “the James Brown band in a triple exposure.”

Juju music originated in its acoustic form as far back as the 1920s, but Adé was the first to introduce the pedal steel guitar, electric bass, and synthesizers to the mix. He grew up listening to American singers such as Sam Cooke and the country crooner Jim Reeves, he says.

“I’m a lover of country, pop, jazz,” he says.

After cutting dozens of albums early in his career, his recording output has slowed to a trickle in recent years. In the West, Adé hasn’t released any albums of new music in more than a decade.

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That, however, does not mean he is slowing down. Long known as the “Minister of Enjoyment,” Adé jokes that he doesn’t expect to be memorialized anytime soon, as was his late friend and colleague Fela Kuti with a biographical musical that opened on Broadway in 2009. For him, the real thing is still here.

“I’m working hard,” Adé said. “I try my best. By the grace of God, while I’m still alive, I’m not sure I need that.”

From a young age, Adé knew he wanted to make rhythm-based music. In his family’s church, he was drawn to the percussion instruments, though his parents did not approve. His father, he says, was a careful, deliberate man, but Adé wanted to inspire people to move.

In addition to employing so many musicians, Adé has founded a small empire of businesses and philanthropic organizations. (In Nigeria, he’s sometimes referred to as “the Chairman.”)

He has interests in oil and mining, as well as record labels and film and video production. He once estimated he had 700 people in his employ, 200 or so in music. He’s also been a diligent campaigner on behalf of musicians’ rights.

Yet Adé claims he is apolitical. While acknowledging that there is never any shortage of global crises to contend with — in particular, he mentions the Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram and the recent nightclub massacre in Orlando — he believes his mission is simple: “Finding a way to have peace in the whole world.”

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“I love peace, and I believe that my songs have to do with peace and happiness,” he says. “I’m not an activist. If you’re like an activist, you have something you’re fighting for. I prefer to have peace.”

For the most part, he says, he leaves his business concerns in the hands of his managers. The family business will always be music. Several of Adé’s children — he has multiple wives, in accordance with Yoruban tradition — are singers and musicians, he says, though they don’t necessarily promote themselves as KSA’s offspring.

“They use other names,” he says, chuckling, “because King Sunny Adé is supposed to be the only one.”

KING SUNNY Adé

At the Sinclair, Cambridge, July 6 at 8 p.m. 617-547-5200, www.sinclaircambridge.com

At the Lowell Folk Festival, July 29 at 9 p.m. www.lowellfolkfestival.org


James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.