Feb 27, 2012

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou - An interview

Ever since Ry Cooder gathered together a forgotten generation of semi-ancient Cubans to record the seminal "Buena Vista Social Club" album, the search has been incessant in all corners of the world to find other "scenes" that might be similarly turned into a worldwide phenomenon. Whilst a recently released cinema film, the excellent "Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae", is following the Buena Vista blueprint almost step by step in order to document the pre-Reggae music of Jamaica, a number of African artists who made their name in the 1970s have also profited from this interest in history. After The Super Rail Band (Mali), Orchestra Baobab (Senegal), Mulatu Astatke (Ethiopia) and Bembeya Jazz (Guinea), amongst others, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo from Benin are the latest to receive a new lease of life.

A veritable "Big Band" with plenty of brass, Poly-Rythmo were formed in the late 1960s, swiftly becoming hugely popular throughout West Africa. Their music was a joyous, groove-driven blend of local styles, Fela-like Afrobeat, Congolese Rumba, Jazz and Funk. In 1972, however, a military coup brought a regime to power whose attempt to create an African form of Marxist-Leninist government strangled the country's music scene by introducing a weekday live-music-curfew an hour before midnight. By the mid-80s, when this curfew was ended, Benin was poverty-stricken. Nevertheless, Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo soldiered on. They remained largely undetected elsewhere until a few years ago a handful of compilation albums of their 70s evergreens started to come out on European labels. Now, they have recorded their first new album for 25 years. Sublime met their singer Vincent Ahehehinnou and the band's French re-discoverer, Elodie Maillot, in London.


What were the circumstances how this album came to be?

Vincent Ahehehinnou: Everything started when a journalist from Radio France by the name of Elodie Maillot came to see us for a show for the Independence Day in Abomey. She really loved our music. After the interview one of us said to her: "Please, Madame, can you do something for us to be recognised outside Africa? We never had a chance to play outside Africa." She said: "I can't, I 'm just a journalist but I'll try to see what I can do". And she did. We ended up touring in 2009 with 9 shows in Europe, and she was our tour manager. We had a little spare time to start do the recording, and here's the album!

Since Elodie Maillot is sitting here with us, acting as the interpreter, perhaps she could tell us herself what attracted her so strongly to this music that she gave up her job with Radio France and sank all her savings into the recording of this album?

Elodie Maillot: I was always big fan of African music and Funk also, and I never found another band with such rhythmic and stylistic diversity. I discovered them whilst looking through the record library at Radio France. It was an album called "0 + 0 = 0", and I thought, oh, we have the same love of mathematics, maybe we can get along! All the record sleeves were great, too. So I went to Benin to find them and do my interview. It really touched me when they said: "OK, you recorded us talking and you will broadcast our interview ? but will anything be different for us afterwards?" People in Jamaica, Haiti, Congo ? everywhere people always expect so much from you and your microphone. But as a journalist, there's not much you can do to help in practical terms.

But this time things turned out differently - why?

Elodie Maillot: I really was a very big fan of theirs, and I was beginning to feel that maybe here was an opportunity after all these years on the radio and all the artists I had met, to try and do something. Show some commitment. Then I met the band Franz Ferdinand. Somehow we ended up talking about Poly-Rhythmo. Alex Kapranos was a big fan, too, and he told me it was their dream one day to meet them. I said to myself: If Franz Ferdinand love Poly-Rythmo, maybe we can really do something.

The songs on the album, are they new songs, or new versions of old songs?

Vincent Ahehehinnou: We decided to have some old songs because we wanted people to recognise us and be happy, but mix these with new songs. The next album will only be new songs.

The diversity of your music, especially the rhythms, is truly striking. Where does this diversity stem from?

Vincent Ahehehinnou: Wein Poly-Rhytmo are a real symbol of cultural diversity. In Benin you have 55 ethnicities. Our members come from all sorts of different ethnicities. The diversity of our music is an expression of the diversity of our members' roots.

What kind of music did you listen to when you were 13?

Vincent Ahehehinnou: The only thing I could listen to was the radio. But the radio belonged to my father. He said: if I hear the radio that means you're not studying. Later on at college I listened to the radio a lot. Mostly it was the French singers, Francoise Hardy, Mireille Mathieu, Nana Mouskouri, mostly women but also Richard Anthony and Michel Polnareff. Once Polnareff came out with a new album and the poster showed his naked bum. That was a big shock in Africa. We also listened to American music. We didn't understand the lyrics, so when we tried to learn them we had to learn them phonetically.

55 different peoples - does that mean 55 different languages as well?

Vincent Ahehehinnou No - it means 105 languages! The first language is Fon, most others are just spoken languages. But nowadays the government supports and promotes the diversity of different languages, and in order to keep them alive there are attempts to support them as written languages.

Does the government support music in similar ways?

Vincent Ahehehinnou: Until now we never had the chance to have a president who had a cultural vision or an interest in culture.

Surely it was worse during the so-called Marxist-Leninst days in the 1970s?

Vincent Ahehehinnou: Then it was just about the same. Yes, the regime banned music at night time. What was good, however, was that they were supporting children's education, and it was part of the official program to learn about music, theatre and various cultural activities. This is not the case now. All those school programs back then enabled my generation to become artists.

So now there's a thriving music scene?

Vincent Ahehehinnou: Until today, 50 years after independence, my country hasn't got a real hall or a proper venue for bigger shows. There are cinemas, that's all. But nowadays those don't show movies any more, they're rented by evangelists and cults.

How do you explain this indifference? Why don?t the people demand films, demand music?

Vincent Ahehehinnou: I'm the vice-president of the National Federation of Artists, and we've been asking for meetings with the president to discuss this. But he refuses to meet us. I am also the president of the National Commission against Piracy. Our budget per year to fight piracy - which is very bad in Benin ? was 45'000 Euro and has this year been reduced to 30'000 Euro. So I wonder if those people really want to defend culture in our country. For instance, the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo is a national monument. The only thing the government does to support us is that occasionally they wish us to receive some medal. If you're a functionary and you receive a medal, you get two years of promotion. An artist, however, receives nothing. In fact, he has to pay for the medal - and he has to pay for the buffet and the party to go with it. So I have always refused to accept one.

I spoke to Femi Kuti not long ago and he said piracy and downloading wasn't such a problem for Nigerian musicians because there were lots of places to play live and earn a living that way.

Vincent Ahehehinnou: Our country is quite different to Nigeria. We're only 7 million inhabitants in Benin, and of the 7 million, 3 million are foreigners from all over Africa. In Nigeria, if you make a good record, you can stop working for the rest of your life because it's a huge country. You can sell 3 million records. Of the 4 million Beniniens, on the other hand, only maybe 100'000 people have the means to buy a CD. But of these 100'000, 95% would buy pirated material. Poverty doesn't allow them to buy an official CD that costs about 2 Euro, so they buy the bootlegs for 50 cents. If you manage to sell 5000 CDs legally in Benin it's a lot.

How did the band financially support themselves during the lean years?

Vincent Ahehehinnou: When you make music you have to believe. Never give up. We always fight to live from this. So we keep on playing, playing, playing.

Do your lyrics deal with problems like these?

Vincent Ahehehinnou: No. It would be useless. It could even make matters worse. It would also be bad for the young people. If even a band like us has these troubles - it would break their hopes. So we try to manage day to day life on our own. Some of us have other small bands. Others buy and sell small things. One of us does some soldering, one is a priest.

I thought politically Benin was more open and democratic these days. I'm wrong, it seems?

Vincent Ahehehinnou: We're one of the most democratic countries in Africa. But they don't have any interest in culture.

What kind of audiences do you get in Benin ? the teenagers as well or mostly people who remember you from the 70s?

Vincent Ahehehinnou: Our audience goes from children to old people. Ten year olds come on stage to dance with us.

Is the radio supportive?

Vincent Ahehehinnou: Now that we're touring, everyone's looking for our records, the old ones too. So the radio plays them all day long. It's a real renaissance for us. It was a big emotion, being back in the studio, recording. Even in our dreams we never thought one day we would end up recording in France and our records being distributed all around the world. Last year we played in Liverpool. The town of the Beatles! I was crying when I got out of the bus. Me in Liverpool!

Interview originally published and written by hanspeterkuenzler

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