Jul 3, 2009

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou - The Vodoun Effect: 1972-1975

The name of the band - the question:
"It may seem like a stupid question but can I just confirm that Orchestre Poly-rythmo De Cotonou are the same band as TP Orchestre Poly-Rythmo whose music appeared on the excellent album 'The Kings of Benin Urban Groove' released on Soundway Records a couple of years ago."

The name of the band - the answer:
"Its the same band. The TP stands for "Tout Puissant". That was added to the bands name in the late 70s when they started playing soukous/rumba oriented music. I prefere the original name which ich Orcheste Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou Dahomey to be exact. I left Dahomey out...too long and too confusing!!"


Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou is arguably West Africa’s best-kept secret. Their output, both in quantity and quality, was astonishing. During several trips to Benin, Samy Ben Redjeb managed to collect roughly 500 songs which Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou had recorded between 1970 and 1983. With so much material to choose from Samy decided to split it into Volume 1 and 2.

While Volume 2 will be material the band recorded under an exclusive contract with the label Albarika Store, the band also “secretly” recorded with an array of smaller labels based around Cotonou, Benin’s largest city, and Porto Novo, the capital city of Benin Republic. It is those tracks (all officially licensed) that are presented here on Volume 1.The producers of those labels were genuine music enthusiasts, some of them, ran these labels as a part time occupation, with very limited budgets. They couldn’t afford high-quality recordings - all they had to work with was a Nagra (a Swiss made reel-to-reel recorder) and a sound engineer - courtesy of the national radio station. These sessions were recorded in private homes using just one or two microphones.

The cultural and spiritual riches of traditional Beninese music had an immense impact on the sound of Benin’s modern music. Benin is the birthplace of Vodun (also Vodoun, or, as it is known in the West, Voodoo), a religion which involves the worship of some 250 sacred divinities. The rituals used to pay tributes to those divinities are always backed by music. The majority of the complex poly-rhythms of the vodun are still more or less secret and difficult to decipher, even for an accomplished musician. Anthropologists and ethnomusicologists agree that this religion constitutes the principal “cultural bridge” between Africa and all its Diasporas of the New World and in a reflection of the power and influence of these sounds many of the complex rhythms were to have a profound impact on the other side of the Atlantic on rhythms as popular as Blues, Jazz, Cuban and Brazilian music.

Two Vodun rhythms dominate the music of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo: Sato, an amazing, energetic rhythm performed using an immense vertical drum, and Sakpata, a rhythm dedicated to the divinity who protects people from smallpox. Both rhythms are represented here mixed in with Funk, Soul, Crazy organ sounds and Psychedelic guitar riffs. Bandleader Melome Clement explains: “Sato is a traditional rhythm derived from Vodun. It is used in Benin during annual rituals in memory of the dead; you can’t just play Sato at any given time. Sato is also the name of a drum which is used during the ceremonies. It’s huge: about 175 centimeters high. The drummers, armed with sticks, dance around it and hit it all at the same time. It’s very coordinated. The Sato drummers are backed by an orchestra of smaller drums and shakers. We also did some modern versions of a Vodun rhythm called Sakpata. ‘Mi Ni Non Kpo’ and ‘Houi Djein Na Da’ are Sakpatas, which in Fon means "god of the Earth".


Now comes The Vodoun Effect, a set that focuses entirely on Benin's Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou, who recorded extensively over a thirteen-year period running from 1970 to 1983. The band blended James Brown's marathon funk jams with Benin's potent voodoo heritage, which was born in Benin and hugely influenced the polyrhythms from the area.

The Vodoun Effect is the first of two envisioned collections for the Orchestre. Though the eventual Volume 2 will reprise the group's recordings for Albarika Store—their official label—Volume 1 collects the numerous rare cuts they amassed between 1972 and 1975 as they secretly recorded for fly-by-night engineers. Many of these tracks originally came out in pressings of less than a thousand copies and weren't recorded under the most pristine conditions, but sound quality doesn't prove to be much of a deterrent here. Rather, what makes this collection so essential is just how good this bunch of musicians could be while recording off-the-cuff jams to help their studio friends make a little extra cash. This is fully-formed African soul music, rich and diverse, influenced in part by James Brown's African tours, but equally by Sato, a regional poly-rhythmic blend, and Sakpata, a rhythm associated with Vodoun that was used to protect people from smallpox. The band is as infectious as it is timeless.

Benin hasn't gotten as much attention as Nigeria in the excavations currently under way by labels like Soundway, Strut and Honest Jon's, but The Vodoun Effect proves that there is much to be learned from the country's musical heritage. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou is every bit as tight and funky as Africa 70 or Egypt 80, but with its own unique signatures, and fans of those groups will no doubt lap up every moment of this deeply fascinating incarnation of early club music.



01. Mi Homlan Dadalé
02. Assibavi
03. Se We Non Nan
04. Ako Ba Ho
05. Mi Ni Non Kpo
06. Se Tche We Djo Mon
07. Dis Moi La Verité
08. Nouessename
09. Iya Me Dji Ki Bi Ni
10. Akoue Tche We Gni Medjome
11. Nou De Ma Do Vo
12. Koutoulie
13. Kourougninda Wende
14. Mawa Mon Nou Mio