Illustration by Ayo Arogunmati
Mr. Messonnier, what were your favorite aspects of King Sunny Ade's records? How about Fela Kuti?
The records catch the music, but not the live trance and magic. I loved King Sunny live. I haven’t seen him play in a long time but his band in the 80’s was fire, same remark for Fela. The live performances were phenomenal.
You have produced for two of the greatest Nigerian musicians, Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade. What fond memories can you share of your experience with the two men?
I have been lucky enough to enter the studio with both these giants. It was two very different experiences - Fela wrote his music and knew exactly what he wanted and it was a lesson to see him work even sometimes in poor studio conditions in Nigeria. Working with King Sunny was joyful, collaborative and creative. He loved researching new sounds. So, I would avoid comparisons between these very different talents.
How are you able to transition between different genres of music (i.e. JuJu and Afrobeat)? Did you know you were making timeless music?
I was a fan of both artists. I had a chance to work with great jazz musicians before like Don Cherry and the Art Ensemble of Chicago and it was obvious to me that both Fela and Sunny were giants and that their music would be timeless. There were quite a lot of musicians who performed in both bands (Shino Abiodun, Bob Ohiri…), however, Juju and Afrobeat were very different types of music, which were both influenced by Apala music. I could hear the feeling of old talking drums in Fela’s bass lines, but this is a personal feeling.
Are you into politics? Did you set out to make music that spoke to everyday issues in Nigeria?
Fela was into politics against corruption, and I could relate completely to that. King Sunny was into a praising the greatness of his country and Africa. Both points of view were very valid in my opinion.
In the age of streaming and easier distribution of music, how widespread do you think Afrobeats and/or JuJu could have been in the 1980’s if the technology existed?
King Sunny Ade’s Island two first albums took the world by storm. They really were huge successes. Fela was much more underground because his music was too long to be played on the radio and that he was often jailed by the militaries and couldn’t tour a lot for that reason. I believe both would have had a much bigger success with the Internet.
Do you think there can be a resurgence in these two genres that captures a mass market audience?
I see these albums like classics of Great Black Music. In comparison with jazz , I can’t see Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie coming back as mainstream artists, but the legacy will last a very long time.
How do you stay fresh as a producer and adapting to changing sound, technology and audience preference?
The technology has advanced so much in the last 40 years and I have been lucky enough to see it all from analogic studio recording to laptops. It is still very exciting. But technology doesn’t replace good music and great artists.