Dec 9, 2009
Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou – Volume 2: Echos Hypnotiques
They are one of the best kept secrets of West Africa. While Bembeya Jazz, Konono N°1 or Orchestra Baobab have triumphed on European stages, it looked like this mythical Beninese band would go into retirement without ever playing outside Africa. Happily this is now set to change as Tout Puissant Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou embarks on a debut European tour.
“If death took bribes, I would pay a fortune to save my mother and father” sang Poly-Rythmo’s Antoine Dougbé thirty years ago. This legendary Benin band which has played with Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, Manu Dibango and Orquesta Aragon, has not managed to entirely cheat the grim reaper but their reputation is well and truly alive and kicking. Asking around at Cotonou’s nightclubs and bars, to the sound of Ivorian coupé décalé, I heard the same comment over and over again: “Poly-Rythmo? What an incredible band!”
Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou was formed in 1969, anchoring their sound in the complex rhythms of the sacred Vodoun ceremonies of Benin, which have had far less exposure than the music of Cuban Santeria, Haitian Vodoun, or Brazilian Candomblé. They would put a Beninese spin on the hits of the day by Johnny Hallyday, Dalida or James Brown and created a repertoire which was as unique as it was explosive. "Drums, bells and horns are the fundamental instruments used during our traditional Vodoun rituals. We added guitars and organs - we modernised those ancients rhythms and combined them with Western genres that were in vogue at that time", explains Melome Clement, founder and bandleader. “We discovered JB’s funk on Voice of America” remembers Jean Luc Aplogan, the former Bénin Passion producer who now heads up the diversity commission at Radio France. “Poly-Rythmo were emblematic of that passion we had for funk and jerk, but their lyrics were all about life in Benin. They would sing about how to give bad luck the slip, about jealousy and love”.
Poly-Rythmo eventually became house-hold names in Benin and earned a huge reputation throughout West Africa, recording over 500 songs, including the massive hits ‘Gbeti Madjro’ and ‘Mille Fois Merci’. They first acquired electric instruments via their sponsor, local promoter, Crépin Wallace. “Once Wallace left to join his French wife in Paris, things started to get tougher. Our families put pressure on us to stop playing music”, says Clément. “Then with Pierre Loko (sax), Gustave Bentho (bass), Maximus Ajanohoun (guitar) and Eskill Lohento (singer) we became the resident band at the Canne à Sucre club. Cuicui André, the owner of the Poli Disco shop bought instruments for us. He wanted us to be called the Poly-Orchestra after his store. I chose Tout Puissant Orchestre Poly-Rythmo because we played every kind of rhythm and because we were electrified!” The band created an irresistible sound and frequently opened for Fela Kuti. “We supported Fela many times whenever he played in Cotonou, and we used to meet him at the EMI studio in Lagos where we did lots of recordings”, says Clément, “we loved his music”. Despite their popularity (even star saxophonist Tidjani Koné left the Rail Band of Bamako to join them) Poly-Rythmo had always struggled to make a living from their music or buy their own instruments. “Various producers have bought amps and guitars for us, but some of them had to be sold. Other equipment got damaged when we were on the road, especially during our Libyan tour. The authorities there warned us not to bring alcoholic drinks into the country, but they suspected us of hiding bottles inside our instruments and threw everything onto the ground when we arrived. That was a really tough moment for the band.”
Right up until the 1980s the band was still successful and touring in Niger, Togo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Angola and Côte d’Ivoire. But with political upheavals in Benin, increasing financial pressures, and the deaths of guitarist Bernard ‘Papillon’ Zoundegnon and vocalist Yehoussi Leopold, Poly-Rythmo seemed destined to ease gently into musical history. However, deep in the heart of Cotonou, a core of original band-members were still playing that transcendent mix of heavy funk and Benin psych. Meeting the band in Abomey in 2007, Mondomix contributor Elodie Maillot began to form plans to bring the live Orchestre Poly-Rythmo Vodoun-funk experience to new audiences. With the rising interest in vintage grooves fuelled by labels such as Soundway and Analog Africa the timing feels just right. So, forty years since their beginnings, the group is ready for their debut European tour. “To be honest, we’d had so many broken promises down the years that we didn’t believe this would happen!” says singer Vincent Ahehehinnou, one of the defining voices of the original line-up. “But now we’ve finally got our passports and visas in our hands I think this is going to be one of the best times in Poly-Rythmo’s history – a surprise renaissance!”
Background of the new album
Four years in the making, Analog Africa finally presents the second volume of Africa's funkiest band, the mythical Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou.
What had started as a children entertainment group became one of the greatest bands of their era. Volume One was a collection of amazing LO-Fi recordings produced for various labels around Benin. Volume Two showcases superbly recorded tracks, courtesy of the EMI studios in Lagos, one of the best studios in the region. All tracks here were recorded for the mighty Albarika Store label and its enigmatic producer, Adissa Seidou.
The idea for this compilation was born 5 years ago when Samy Ben Redjeb, founder and compiler of Analog Africa, received the addictive funk track Malin Kpon O released in 1975 on the Albarika Store Label. That discovery triggered the compilers curiosity and what followed was a long journey through the musical history of Benin and the history of its most important ambassador, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou.
The 4 year journey involved criss-crossing Benin, Togo and Niger trying to lay hands on the bands recording output which was found in record stocks and had laid untouched for a quarter of a century, reviewing reels and master tapes at the headquarters of Albarika Store, conducting interviews with all the living members of the band, searching for pictures of the Orchestra and licensing the music from the composers and producer. The result: approximately 100 pictures, 120 master tapes, 20 hours of interviews and a few hundred Orchestre Poly-Rythmo vinyl records - 500 songs in total - some of which were previously unreleased.
Almost half of those tunes were recorded for Benin's No.1 label - Albarika Store.
15 out of 200 tracks were carefully selected for this compilation which comes with a massive 44 page-booklet stuffed with amazing pictures of the band and its members, a complete discography and a biography tracing the history of the bands from its foundation as Groupe Meloclem in 1964 via Sunny Blacks band (1965), Orchestre Poly-Disco (1966), El Ritmo (1967) and finally Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou in 1968.
During the period presented here - 1969 to 1979 - the mighty Orchestra was without any doubt one of Africa's most innovative group. Capable of playing any style of music, the band moved from Traditional Vodoun Rhythms to Funk, Salsa or Afro-beat seamlessly and quickly became the powerhouse of Benin's music scene, backing most of Africa's stars touring the country such as Manu Dibango, Ernesto Djedje, Bella Bellow as well as supporting an array of local composers such as Honore Avolonto, Antoine Dougbé and Danialou Sagbohan.
Given the size of the tiny country one could think that Poly-Rythmo must have been too big a fish for such a small pond, but the more one understands Benin's culture and traditions the more it appears that a phenomenon such as Orchestre Poly-Rythmo couldn't have happened anywhere else. Some of the planets most exciting rhythms are related to the complex Vodoun Religion born in Benin. Those rhythms, supported by chants and dances, have been transmitted from generation to generation and are still being performed to this date - a few hundred years after they were created. The composers and arrangers of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo understood that they were surrounded by a gold mine of inspirational sounds which, if modernised and mixed in with whatever was in fashion at that particular moment, could have a strong impact on the urban population.
Those astonishing combinations can be heard here: Afro-Beat, Sato, Funk, Sakpata, Psychedelia and Latin sounds all mixed into a heavy hypnotic Sound - Les Echos Hypnotiques.
Thanx to analogafrica.blogspot.com!!!
Much like the Vodoun Effect before it, Echos Hypnotiques focuses largely on material from the group’s ‘70s prime. However, the recordings collected here are culled from the Orchestre’s more professionally recorded releases for Albarika Store. As such, it is marginally more “mainstream” in that it is smoother and less quirky than the secret lo-fi recordings from the first volume. Not by much though—all of the elements that made the Vodoun Effect so infectious are here as well (yet I definitely miss some of the more unhinged organ parts).
There are a couple of things that the Orchestre truly excel at and the main one is turning out some taut, rhythmically complex, and killer grooves. This is best executed by the infectiously propulsive cowbell beat of “Agnan Dekpe,” which also features some nicely arranged brass and understated organ riffing. The second element that sets OPR apart from their peers is their seamless and ravenous assimilation of disparate and wide-ranging influences. For example, “Malin Kpon O” combines clean highlife guitars, a straight funk rhythm section, and psych-tinged organ. Incidently, that song is the one that initially convinced Analog Africa's Samy Ben Redjeb to track down the rest of the band's oeuvre. “Minkou E So Non Moin," on the other hand, seems to borrow liberally from both disco and reggae. A Latin influence is also fairly pervasive at times (such as on “Zizi”), but the group’s primary reference point is almost always the traditional ritual percussion of their native Benin.
Or course, the Orchestre definitely have some conspicuous weaknesses too. The main one is that a lot of their material more closely resembles an extended vamp than a tightly structured song. This is a mixed blessing, as when they lock into an incredibly funky rhythm like that of “Houne Djein Nada,” I’m more than happy to let it continue uninterrupted. Unfortunately, when the groove is not so compelling, songs can seem very flabby and tedious. “Mede Ma Gnin Messe” is probably the worst offender, as it is relentlessly cheery and repetitive and drags on for an excruciating nine minutes. There also seems to be an inability to cut loose extraneous instrumentation at times, which results in a substantial amount of clutter, meandering solos, and distracting noodling.
That said, such shortcomings merely mean that Orchestre Poly-Rythmo is a “singles band.” There are a lot of great songs here, they just aren’t frequent enough to justify regularly playing the entire album straight through. At their best, the Orchestre’s rhythm section is as funky, vibrant, and exhilarating as nearly anybody. It's good to see them finally get their due.
Anyone who has been to a concert by Angelique Kidjo since her arrival on the international scene in the 1990s has heard of the West African nation of Benin, and possibly even her hometown, Cotonou. They have also heard the litany of her “influences,” either from her introductions to her own songs or from interviews. But in the European and American press, that litany tends to focus on names like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder and Carlos Santana, leaving the impression that, before Kidjo, Benin had no music scene to speak of.
This second album in Analog Africa’s series on the band Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo de Cotonou — yes, Kidjo’s hometown — should put an end to that mistake. Simply put, Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo, while less known outside Africa than its contemporaries of the 1960s and 1970s, was every bit as talented and inventive. Echos Hypnotiques collects 15 cuts from the Cotonou label Albarika Store to showcase a heady mix of funk, afrobeat, sato, and soul.
The very first cut, “Se ba ho,” grabs the listener’s attention, starting with traditional handclaps and hand drums, adding organ, bass, and guitar within ten seconds, and by 30 seconds, drumkit, percussion, and horns to create a loping 12/8 background to shouted lyrics in call-and-response format. “Mi ve wa se,” using the same instrumentation as the first cut, is built on traditional drum ensemble rhythms, giving an unusual eight-beat structure with a hiccup – a silence between the fifth and sixth beats. Out of this beat rise guitar and organ solos that would not be out of place in a piece by the Rail Band or Bembeya Jazz. “Azoo de ma gnin kpevi” is half Afrobeat, half funk, and half rumba, with cowbell sounding the clave, horns and organs handling the chorus, bass working with the rhythm guitar and percussion to drive everything forward.
Many of the cuts on Echos Hypnotiques are like this, a seamless mix of African and Afro-American. Not all of the songs on this disc mix and match, however; “Malin kpon o” is pure Motown, “Mede ma gnin messe”and “Agnon dekpe” are all Afrobeat, while “Zizi” is Congolese rumba. But regardless of whether it’s a “pure” song or a mix, the traditional polyrhythms of Benin are never far behind, and several cuts make that tradition the core of the song. “Koutome,” for example, is built entirely on the interlocking drum patterns, which structure the bass and rhythm guitar and provide the melody for the vocals. Only the instrumentation (and the guitar solo halfway through) tips off the listener that the edges of tradition are being pushed.
This is exciting music performed by accomplished musicians, a marriage of complex rhythms, funky guitar solos, and hot horn breaks that could only have come from the homeland of Vodoun.
Echos Hypnotiques starts with tick-clap tick-clap, and the spaces between those ticks and claps are the last bits of loose, uninhabited air we hear until the end of the album 78 minutes later. Brass comes in and everything is speed, density, singing, singing, and churning, churning, ideas from Afro-America, ideas from Afro-Africa, afrobeat, vodoun, percussive sato, venerable sakpata, ideas from the French mid-century rocker Johnny Hallyday, ideas from, I swear, psychedelic Britain: the keyboard lushly bleeds and drools, and the lead singer urges it forward like a shepherd pushing his sly and dawdling lambs with a crook made up of ejaculated syllables that sound sometimes like this: “Tcha! Tcha!” He’s singing in—well, I’d have to look it up. Fon? Fon. The press kit promises that, in the commercial release, things like languages will be explained in a:
44 page booklet filled with … pictures of the band, a complete discography, and a biography tracing the band from its foundation as Groupe Meloclem in 1964 via Sunny Black’s band , Orchestre Poly-Rythmo , El Ritmo  and finally, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou in 1968.
I don’t have that booklet, but judging from the standard of Samy ben Redjeb’s past booklets, I’m going to assume that it will be as good as it sounds. Caveat emptor, I don’t know for sure. But anyone willing to trace the tangled web of those African bands that form, re-form, argue, split in half, borrow new members from somebody else, find a fresh patron, re-name themselves—etc etc—is showing some kind of exemplary dedication. The first two times I reviewed Analog Africa’s releases, I pointed out that the label didn’t have a website and I don’t think I’ve ever corrected that, so here, now, is the address: analogafrica.blogspot.com.
Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou comes from Benin. That “de Cotonou” in the name gives away its hometown, Cotonou, the country’s largest and most financially bustling city, sitting on the coastline in the south. The Orchestre was introduced to mainstream modern western listeners in 2004 when the British label Soundway released a Poly-Rythmo retrospective. Four years later, Analog Africa released a different one. That album covered the years 1972-1975, and the music was drawn from the vaults of various labels. This new, third album runs from 1969 to 1979 and takes its tracks from a single label, Albarika. Why Albarika alone? Because Albarika released only slightly less than half the Poly-Rythmo tracks that the compiler ben Redjeb found when he started digging. There were 200 Albarika tracks to choose from, announces the press kit. 500 songs in all. And then I check the track lists of the three retrospectives to make sure there isn’t any overlap, and when I see there isn’t, I feel silly for even having looked. With hundreds of tracks to choose from, why would you need to repeat them?
Earlier this year, Analog Africa released Legends of Benin, a compilation of different bands. Where that album was wide, this album is deep. Legends of Benin‘s El Rego imitates James Brown, but the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo assimilates him, and others too, making everything cohere in a style that is theirs: Poly-Rythmo style, played with the flair of a band that took each new idea as a challenge and an opportunity, rather than a reason to feel overwhelmed. The relentlessness of this music is exhilarating, the thickness of it, the groove, the band’s refusal to let the listener slow down. Everything is sweet, deep, rich. None of the other 1970s Benin bands on Legends are quite this distinctive.
Due to innumerable reasons, some great artists and bands fail to achieve the posterity of their peers, and so it was with Benin’s Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou whose name should be as recognisable to African music fans as Orchestra Baobab and the Bamako Rail Band.
Working to right this wrong is Analog Africa’s founder Samy Ben Redjeb, who spent years tracking down the numerous tracks cut by this prolific group of musicians. Subtitled ‘From the Vaults of Albarika Store 1969-1979’, Echoes Hypnotiques is the second instalment is Ben Redjeb’s excellent series and focuses on music recorded in the EMI studios in Lagos for Benin’s Albarika Store label.
Benin is a small country but musically it punches above its weight with a thriving music scene, due in no small part to the importance of music and dance to the ceremonies of the Voudon (or Voodoo in the west) religion, the primary cultural force in Benin. The Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou, one of Benin’s most popular bands during this period, combine local rhythms with Afrobeat and, from further afield, funk, Latin and soul, to create music with a truly hypnotic groove (hence the title).
Propelled by ever-present percussion, blaring horns and nifty guitar work, the band’s sometimes sprawling songs also feature various vocalists, who add to the mix rather than set the tone. The lead singer often leads a call and response figure with a chorus repeating phrases, as on the energetic ‘Noude Ma Gnin Tche De Me’. Members of the Orchestre also indulge in some brief but deeply funky soloing. Two guitar solos – on the previously mentioned track and ‘Houte djein Nada’ – stand out especially, as does a soulful sax solo on ‘Azoo De Ma Gnin Kpevi’.
The spirit of the Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou is not about soloing though, but sustaining the groove. What is striking about this compilation of studio-recorded tracks is the atmosphere of a live performance to these tracks. The sound quality is usually pretty good and a little of bit of poor tuning and rough-round-the-edges playing doesn’t spoil the good vibes and talented musicianship at play here.
01. Se Ba Ho
02. Mi Ve Wa Se
03. Azon De Ma Gnin Kpevi
04. Noude Ma Gnin Tche De Me
05. Ahouli Vou Yelli
06. Gan Tche Kpo
07. Malin Kpon O
08. Mede Ma Gnin Messe
09. Agnon Dekpe
11. Ma Dou Sou Nou Mio
13. Houe Djein Nada
14. Minkou E So Non Moin
Labels: Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou