Sep 12, 2009

African Scream Contest - Raw & Psychedelic Afro Sounds From Benin & Togo 70s



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In the 1970s there was no 'world music'. Benin was a Marxist republic recently born out of Dahomey and Togo was in the first decade of what would turn out to be the epic dictatorship of General Gnassingbé Eyadéma. Unless you were born in one of these countries, you’d never have got to hear the voodoo funk music that was being conjured up in what must be two of the richest cultural melting pots on the planet.

Fusion is almost as abused a term as folk. But this is what it sounds like. Pick a track. Mi Kple dogbekpo, the opener, has Cuban brass, a Congolese chorus, a psychedelic riff shaped solely for shaping. On the next one, Mi Ma Kpe Dji, the spirit is blues, but moulded by James Brown and Nigerian High Life. It's A Vanity is more soul, more sex. The band on this, as well as two other tracks, is the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou, who took the Afro sound to new levels by ensuring that even while they copied Western rhythms, there was always a fiery injection of Beninese passion or, when relevant, politics. Their big hit, Gbeti Madjro – track five here – was written during a period of turmoil and stirred up its own revolution in the local music scene.

Ouidah, on Benin's Atlantic Coast, is home to a large Brazilian community – the Agoudas, descendants of slaves who returned from Brazil at the end of the 19th century. They brought back dances and proto-samba sounds, which worked their way into the mix in the 70s.

These artists also heard French chanson, Johnny Hallyday – an icon in the West African university scene – US funk, as well as local rhythms on the radio. Out of this chaos, comparable at the time to the far more widely known Brazilian coastal music scene, came great riches. Everything, somehow, gels. Why, it's harder to fathom. Few of these musicians were trained, and all had to learn how to blast their way through out-of-tune solos and off-beat drummers. Perhaps it's the screams and the psychedelic state that holds together the random elements and disparate talents. After all, Benin is the birthplace of Vodun, as in voodoo, which was all about melting pots and losing yourself in wild traditional rhythms such as Sakpata, Sato, Agbadja, Tchenkoumé, to name only a few.

Africa Scream Contest – what a title – is the third compilation to come from Analog Africa compilation. Like the others, this disc proves that music doesn't have much truck with geopolitics. When New York slicksters thought they were at the centre of the universe - Studio 54, say – these bands were taking the coolest parts of funk, soul and disco, reinventing it and, at the same time, transforming their own music and culture. A lot of the reaction to West African blues has focused on origins and a going-back-to-roots, but the groove in Benin and Togo was far deeper and far more inventive than that.

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Roger Damawuzan

After releases by Zimbabwean 70s bands the Green Arrows and Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, the Analog Africa label now delves into the amazing history of music from 1970s Benin and Togo. This compilation highlights forgotten raw and psychedelic Afro sounds, and the well-researched liner notes tell fascinating stories to accompany the mind-blowing music. The essence of Analog Africa is clear; searching in dusty warehouses for forgotten music to keep the sound alive. Label owner & vinyl collector Samy Ben Redjeb arrived in Cotonou, Benin, "without any special expectations, just hoping to lay my hands on few good records--what I found in the process cannot really be described in words".

Like most modern music in French-speaking West African countries, the music of Benin and Togo was influenced by a few main musical currents: Cuban, Congolese and local traditional music, as well as Chanson Francaise. Additionally, the geographical location of Benin and Togo--sandwiched between Ghana and Nigeria--exposed Beninese and Togolese musicians to Highlife music.

The cultural and spiritual riches of traditional Beninese music had an immense impact on the sound of Benin's modern music. Benin is the birth place of Vodun (or, as it is known in the West, Voodoo), and some of the rhythms used during traditional rituals - Sakpata, Sato, Agbadja, Tchenkoumé and many others - were fused to Soul and Latin music as early as the mid-1960s and later to Funk. In the late '60s and early '70s rock and soul music started creeping into the region. In particular, the music of James Brown and Johnny Halladay became immensely popular with university students. It was then that the music scene in Benin really started to take off. That fusion is the essence of this compilation. The CD includes a well researched 44-page booklet & rare photographs.

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Ouinsou Corneille & Black Santiagos

If the subtitle to African Scream Contest – ‘Raw and Psychedelic Sounds from Benin and Togo 70s’ – isn’t enough to engender your curiosity, maybe the story of the label and its founder, a music-driven Tunisian-German called Samy Ben Redjeb, is. In the mid-1990s, Ben Redjeb was a diving instructor working in Senegal when an accidental exposure to a Thomas Mapfumo record triggered an epiphany. Slowly he worked his way round Africa’s record shops, but it was in Benin that he struck his gold. Financing his purchases by working as a flight attendant for an airline, African Scream Contest, the third release from Analog Africa, is the result.

There isn’t as much screaming as the title suggests – although Orchestre Poly-Rythmo’s ‘Gbeti Madjro’ comes close – but a cornucopia of Afro-trance music, taking its influences from indigenous sounds as much as American funk and psychedelia. It’s a little off-kilter in places – witness the detuned brass on Les Volcanos de la Capital’s ‘Oya Ka Jojo’ – but this is a minor gripe. This album embraces musical flux with wild vigour. Vincent Ahehehinnou’s ‘Ou C’est Lui ou C’est Moi’ is the 10-minute groove that, on the other side of the Atlantic, the mighty Temptations could only have dreamed of.

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If all compilers of classic African pop worked as hard as Samy Ben Redjeb, there would be fewer such compilations, but they’d be much better. In researching the 70s pop of Benin and Togo (mostly Benin), Ben Redjeb made multiple forays to West Africa, digging through market stalls, vintage record shops, and ultimately a scorpion infested vinyl warehouse in Cotonou to find the mother load of all-but-forgotten hits from which these 14 tracks were lovingly selected. Having made his choices, Ben Redjeb returned to track down the composers and artists (or their survivors) to secure rights and also detailed interviews, photographs and other memorabilia of the era. All this and more fills the pages of a 40+ page booklet that makes this compilation so much more than a fun and funky novelty release. This packate offers a complete introduction to a fascinating unsung chapter in the vast Afropop story.

The big picture is that by 1970 Lome and Cotonou were awash in pop music acts creating a fusion of Cuban, Congolese, and local indigenous styles. Those local styles included powerful religious traditions, such as Vodun, with their wealth of ancient rhythms, melodies, and folklore. Then came the overlay of James Brown funk, and its most consequential African offshoot, the Afrobeat sound of Fela Kuti. Throw all that together and you begin to grasp the quirky appeal of groups like Lokonon André & Les Volcans, or Orchestre Poly-Rythmo. Poly-Rhythmo and Orchestre Black Santiago were mainstays of the 24-track Satel studio in Cotonou, and they backed many popular singers of the day. All the names and details a true music nerd requires are supplied, but the real payoff is the music.

Les Volcans kick off with down-and-dirty 12/8 pump, featuring gnashing electric guitar and the fierce buzz saw vocal of Lokonon André. The late Gabo Brown lays down a raspy soul vocal over Poly-Rythmo’s sizzling Afrobeat groove pm “It’s a Vanity.” On “Gbeti Madjro,” Poly-Rythmo cranks into high gear with James Brown screams and punchy clean-toned guitar riffs tangling over a breathless shuffle beat. The James Brown vibe also shines through on the more chilled-out “Wait for Me,” by Roger Damawuzan of Lome, Togo. The most unique tracks are those that incorporate strong doses of local rhythm, like the jittery, bell-driven funk of “Vinon so Minsou” by Ouinsou Corneille & Black Santiago. This music will make you smile with its playful exuberance and unexpected creative flourishes. But rather than packaging history as retro-psychedelic-funk, and leaving things there, Africa Scream Contest comes through with the genuine story of the music and the musicians, and this puts the release in a class by itself.

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Tracklist

01.Lokonon André & Les Volcans - Mi kple Dogbekpo
02.Picoby Band D´Abomey - Mi Ma Kpe Dji
03.Gabo Brown & Orchestre Poly-Rythmo - It´s a Vanity
04.El Rego et ses commandos - Se Na Min
05.Napo de Mi Amor Et Ses Black Devil´s - Leki Santchi
06.Orchestre Poly-Rythmo - Gbeti Madjro
07.Roger Damawuzan - Wait For Me
08.Ouinsou Corneille & Black Santiagos - Vinon so Minsou
09.Orchestre Super Jheevs des Paillotes - Ye Nan Lon An
10.Tidiani Kone - Djanfi Magni
11.Discafric Band - Houiou Djin Nan Zon Aklumon
12.Le Super Borgou de Parakou - Congolaise Benin Ye
13.Vincent Ahehehinnou - Ou c´est Lui Ou C´est Moi
14.Les Volcans de la Capital - Oya Ka Jojo

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