Danjuma Adamu, who helped popularize Afrobeat on the West Coast, passes away
The memorial for Danjuma Adamu at Pacific Garden Chapel in Santa Cruz was packed with world beat musicians, some in floor-length white dashikis, others in traditional two-piece African dresses in colorful patterns with matching hats.
The Nigerian-born multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and bandleader, a blazing star in the Santa Cruz musical firmament, passed away on Sept. 1.
Inside the chapel, two flat screens on either side of the open coffin flashed videos of Adamu singing and dancing across myriad stages, beaming with the transcendent joy that playing music always drew out of him. Local percussionist Rick Walker passed out hand drums and percussion instruments to the mourners for a five-minute rhythm jam that united those gathered with an ancient, empowering heartbeat.
Adamu’s journey began 67 years ago in Adele, a small Nigerian village, where his grandfather was chief drummer.
In slightly broken English with an engaging Yoruban accent, he explained in a 1996 GT interview that he started drumming when he was so small he had to climb up the side of the drum. “I didn’t understand why they make us play, punish us if we don’t. But then later I realize it is good in life to have rhythm in anything you do,” said Adamu.
He also played guitar. American pop music of the 1960s was the soundtrack of Adamu’s youth, and his guitar idol was Jimi Hendrix, giving rise to an alter ego he named Jimi Lee. When his burning solos drove crowded dance floors wild, he’d say, “That not Danjuma—that Jimi Lee.”
“In Africa, American music is very popular. Mix it up,” he said with a chuckle. “You have to dance, man.”
“Mixing it up,” as he put it, meant combining Western instruments and jazz/funk/rock influences with the traditional 6/8-over-4/4 bell pattern, a staple of West African drumming. This is a blend of two completely unrelated time signatures—the straight and standard four beats to the measure, and the flow and lilt of waltz time.
Molly Higbee, guitarist for popular Santa Cruz world beat band Pele Juju who studied drumming for two years in Ghana, explained how these two rhythms interact.
“The rhythms, when combined, push and pull at each other every step of the way, yet their interlocking is an amazingly perfect fit,” Higbee wrote. “Those who haven’t heard it before might not know just how to dance to it, but that is because you can dance to either rhythm separately, or to both at once. The two rhythms meet on the downbeat and then go their separate ways, only to meet again on the downbeat. You come back to the center and you go out again, over and over, over and over. Surrendering to this feeling is the joy of music, the enlightenment of trance, and the experience of something very ancient and empowering in the human musical tradition.”
Simply put, it’s music you can’t resist dancing to. And that’s what Adamu’s music has always compelled—a contrapuntal, booty-shaking shimmy from head to toe.
Three decades ago, a North American tour with “Godfather of Afrobeat” O.J. Ekemo landed Adamu in Oakland. After two years, he moved to Santa Cruz.
Adamu alternated between bass, drums, keyboards, guitar, and percussion with astounding virtuosity. When he moved to Santa Cruz, he put together all original Afro-pop band Kosono, Yoruba for “no way for negative vibrations.” Santa Cruz Sentinel correspondent Paul Wagner caught two shows packed with screaming, ecstatic dancers.
“Every couple of years, a set of local musicians put together a group which is, very simply, the most exciting thing around as measured by audience response,” Wagner wrote in 1987. “Now there is a new larger-than-local band in the making, exciting to watch, fun to listen to, and unusually musically skilled. The name: Kosono.”
Adamu and I connected in an African dance class he was drumming for. I a was country fiddler and aspiring bass player, and I caught a show, and the second I heard those galloping, melodic West African bass lines, I was a goner. Adaumu was between bass players, so he set out to train me.
The Chief, as I came to call him, was charming and lovable on the one hand, volatile and intimidating on the other—a side exacerbated by having to train successive platoons of California trap drummers, percussionists, guitar, and bass players seduced by the polyrhythmic beauty of his music, then repelled by the rigors of Afrobeat boot camp.
Mastering the intricacies of African syncopation was like ripping apart and rewiring neurons in my brain. When I made a mistake, Adamu would reach over and whack my leg with his drumstick. He had an intimidating scowl and the vibe of an angry lion (not so kosono, I might add). Once, on stage at a club, he stopped a song right in the middle and growled, “You are a dees-grace to music!”
However, as I got to know him better, I saw beyond the irascible affect to the noble core beneath—total body-and-soul dedication to music: sleep in your car, go hungry, play anywhere, anytime, healthy or sick, paid or not. Whether performing for thousands on a giant stage or for a single nodding drunk in a scuzzy dive, he always poured the same passion, commitment and heart into every note: “Music choose me, I can’t escape,” he told me. “I will do it till I die. I work so hard. I don’t have money. I play for Jah. I am happy, I make people happy.”
Thanks to my mentor’s rigorous training, when rapidly rising Pele Juju lost its bass player, I was a shoe-in for the gig. The Chief and I became musical ships passing in the night, until one night in 1996, I learned he and some other African performers had been driving back over Highway 17 from Reggae on the River, Adamu sleeping in back. Somehow the van swerved and plunged down a steep embankment. Luckily, it was stopped short against a little tree. Adamu was wedged in and had to be cut out by the jaws of life, the only one seriously injured. The date was Aug. 4, 1996, his 48th birthday.
I called every hospital in the area and found him in a San Jose hospital room, looking very small and dark against the white sheet, face lacerated and abraded, mouth swollen, chest sore, right ankle broken, in a lot of pain, on morphine. “A leetle tree saved me,” he groaned. “I was asleep. I woke up swallowing blood, my leg broken and stuck in the engine.”
Adamu spent his recovery in bed writing and recording songs on his four-track. These songs became the album Come Back Home. During six months of recording, he first hobbled into the studio leaning on a walker, then on crutches, then a walking stick, then hopping. By the time the CD was completed, he was dancing again.
Adamu took to calling me at odd hours and announcing in his deep, gravelly voice: “The lion is hungry.” This meant he wanted me to go out to the Chinese restaurant and bring back his all-time favorite dish, chicken fried rice.
The calming perspective of advancing years and the supportive love of his life, Mandy Loeb, mellowed the old lion, but otherwise, except for his bald head and a little pot belly, as he turned 67 this past August, he was ebullient as ever, phoning us with excited news about his latest recording ideas.
On Sept. 2 came a shockingly different call from his sweetheart. Loeb had arrived at his apartment that morning to find his dinner half-eaten on t
he kitchen table, Adamu slumped on the floor of the shower, water drumming down on his lifeless body.
Heart attack, a quick death, was the coroner’s diagnosis. Loeb and I conjectured that he’d been stricken midway through dinner and thought a shower would reinvigorate him.
Loeb and I consoled one another by sharing stories. His car accident occurred before she’d met him; when I told her about “the lion is hungry” phone calls, she let out a yelp. Chicken fried rice had been the half-finished meal on his plate. My heart remains heavy at the Chief’s passing, but learning that the last taste on his tongue was his favorite dish lifted my spirits.
The lion did not die hungry.
NO NEGATIVE VIBES The late Danjuma Adamu flashes a thumbs-up with his band Onola. From left: Daniel Thomas, Etienne Franc, Adamu, Ibou Ngom, and Renato Annichicharrio.