May 3, 2011

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou - Cotonou Club ... Review


t's been over 20 years since the Tout Puissant Orchestre Poly-Rythmo last made a studio LP. More than two decades away from anything is a long time, but in popular music, 20 years is practically a geologic epoch-- everything changes, from the sounds on the records to the social conditions under which they're made. Back in their 1970s heyday, Poly-Rythmo were a nearly unmatched force, playing easily in any style on the stage and developing a sound all their own in the studio. Founded in 1966 as the Sunny Blacks Band (sometimes written Sunny Black's Band) by singer/guitarist Mélomé Clément, the group took the name Poly-Rythmo in 1969 in reference to the fact that they played all rhythms, and over the next 16 years, they recorded over 50 albums and hundreds of 45s for pretty much every label that ever operated in Benin.

The band was hobbled by the 1982 deaths of guitarist Papillon and drummer Yehouessi Léopold, and eventually petered out as the 80s wore on. A flash forward to the last few years finds the band finally being discovered by listeners outside of West Africa, the archival efforts of the Analog Africa, Soundway, and Popular African Music labels bringing the band's achievements into the light. And as with several of the their counterparts, the renewed interest brought the band back together. Or a new version of the band, at least. The 10-piece group that cut Cotonou Club contains five original Poly-Rythmo members-- Clément, singer Vincent Ahéhéhinnou, guitarist Maximus Ajanohun, saxophonist Pierre Loko, and bassist Gustave Bentho-- joined by six other musicians, some of whom have a bit of history with the group.

Does the new Poly-Rythmo measure up to the old? In a few very important respects, it does. It's never going to be the 70s again, of course, and there is a certain spirit of invention and restless creativity on the best of the classic Poly-Rythmo records that a project like this has little hope of recapturing. But it's more than a simple nostalgia trip. For one thing, it doesn't entirely give in to the appetite for funk that caused European and American audiences to get interested in the first place. Sure, most of the music leans that way, but Poly-Rythmo were always an eclectic band, and they haven't forgotten that here, mixing in a bit of highlife and rumba and taking a few surprising side trips into jazz. The result is something that feels a little like one of their old LPs with more studio polish-- producer Elodie Maillot took care to record the band on analog equipment to get some semblance of the natural warmth of their old albums, but the sound is left unadorned, just the band playing.

Amongst the new songs, they revisit a few past glories of Beninois music, including their biggest hit, "Gbeti Madjro". On it, they've recruited Benin's biggest pop star, Angelique Kidjo, to share the lead with Ahéhéhinnou while the band holds down the classic breakneck Poly-Rythmo groove, derived from a blend of funk and vodoun ceremonial rhythms. The band spins through tough Latin funk on "Koumi Dede", setting merengue piano against stabbing guitar and making room for a startling jazz solo by keyboardist Moïse Loko. Gnonnas Pedro's classic "Von Vo Nono" (featured on Analog Africa's Legends of Benin compilation) gets a slowed-down heavy funk treatment, the twin guitars of Ajanohun and Fifi LePrince put air in the highlife lilt of "Ma Vie", and there's even an unexpected collaboration with Franz Ferdinand's Nick McCarthy and Paul Thomson on "Lion Is Burning", a thumping Afrobeat rave-up that's been slotted as a bonus track.

I don't expect Orchestre Poly-Rythmo to return to their old prolific ways, but it's good to hear from them again. A common theme with these West African bands that have returned in the last decade-- think Bembeya Jazz and Orchestra Baobab-- is that they were dominant in their best years, but the stories ended unsatisfactorily. Coming back now and releasing albums that are close to the level of their classic material, not to mention playing around the world to big crowds, provides a sort of closure. It ends a long song on a high note, and if we're lucky, maybe even begins a new verse. Twenty-odd years ago, when Poly-Rythmo last made a studio album, they were at their lowest ebb. Cotonou Club finds them at another high., by Joe Tangari, March 2011

An inconsistent but frequently captivating return from the Benin legends.

Based in Benin’s seaside city of Cotonou, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo are the most recent great West African band to make a post-millennial comeback. Following a path similar to that trodden by Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab and Mali’s Orchestre Super Rail Band, Poly-Rythmo have emerged from prolonged hibernation as a result of several re-issues and interest from abroad.

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo’s heyday was the 1970s, as their funk, soul and Afrobeat influences underline. However, a combination of economic and political factors, management issues, the death of key members and bad luck meant this once-prolific band effectively stopped recording in 1983, and only rarely performed afterwards. But since 2003, compilations on Popular African Music, Luaka Bop, Soundway and Analog Africa (including African Scream Contest and Legends of Benin) have given them much wider exposure. Consequently, they were invited to headline the 2010 African Soul Rebels tour and recorded this new album.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cotonou Club largely consists of re-recordings of vintage material; some of the original pieces can be heard on the albums mentioned above. Ne Te Faches Pas is a strong opener, which retains its rubbery disco bounce and slick brass riffs (strongly reminiscent of late-80s OK Jazz), but is less than half the length of the version on The Kings of Benin (2003). In contrast, Gbeti Madjro is only slightly shorter than the old version, and has a welcome contribution from Benin’s sole superstar, Angelique Kidjo, who apparently used to sing with them. Of the other highlights, their take on Gnonnas Pedro’s Afro-funk gem Von Vo Nono, and the Afrobeat shuffle of Holonon (complete with James Brown-style screams and Moise Loko’s wonderfully cheesy keyboards) are the most noteworthy.

Sadly, the rest is less consistent. Lion Is Burning was recorded with two members of celebrity fans Franz Ferdinand but is little more than a jam, and seems to borrow quite heavily from Hugh Masekela’s Don’t Go Lose It Baby. Jeremy Tordjman’s rather flowery sleeve notes outstay their welcome, making spurious mileage out of Poly-Rythmo’s purely musical connections with the vodoun religion, which members are keen to stress they don’t adhere to. And it’s a shame the band don’t stretch out a little more on some of the songs. Even so, if Cotonou Club isn’t quite what it might have been, fans should bear in mind that the reformed Orchestra Baobab didn’t really hit their stride until their second ‘comeback’ recording.

bbc, by Jon Lush, March 2011


After a delay of more than 20 years, there's a new album from one of West Africa's great dance bands. Formerly known as TP Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou – TP standing for "tout puissant" or "all powerful", and Cotonou being the largest city in Benin – they started in the late 60s, recorded dozens of albums, but took decades to achieve international recognition. A series of compilation albums led to their eventual discovery by Western audiences, and the reformed band gave their first UK concert in 2009. This new album features several of those who played with Poly-Rhythmo in the 60s and 70s, and it's a rousing, varied affair. It continues their tradition of specialising in all styles, mixing Afrobeat with funk, jazz and local voodoo influences, here with help from celebrity supporters. Angélique Kidjo joins the stirring, funky revival of Gbeti Madjro, the new Malian star Fatoumata Diawara adds sturdy vocals to the brassy Mariage, and there's even an appearance by members of Franz Ferdinand on the rumbling finale, Lion Is Burning. It's a cheerful, stirring and perhaps deliberately unfocused set, but they sound even better live.



You’ve got to love Strut. Whereas similar labels are happy to re-issue long lost LPs or compilations of old tracks from some of the little known heavyweights of African music, Strut always go the extra mile, often getting their artists back in the studio to release new music. Following storming new recording by the likes of Mulatu Astatke of Ethiopia and Ebo Taylor from Ghana, now it’s the turn of Benin’s voodoo funksters Orchestre Poly-Rythmo to show if they retain the mojo that brought them to fame in the late 60s with their unique fusion of highlife, Afro-beat, soul and jazz shot through with sacred rhythms.

Anyone who caught the band at their shows last year might not have doubted the group’s relevance in 2011, but their studio return exceeds all expectations. Recorded in Paris with producer Elodie Maillot (the journalist who tracked the band down in 2007 after hearing a crackly old vinyl recording while at Radio France), this is the band’s first LP in over 20 years and while some of the rawness that made those original recordings so stunning might have been lost, there is a depth and modern edge here that might just make this one of the African albums of the year. With new versions of classics like ‘Gbeti Madjro’, featuring Angelique Kidjo (one of a handful of featured guests who thankfully don’t dilute the brew as is often the case) alongside new compositions like the Latin tinged ‘Koumi Dede’ this is hopefully the first in a series of LPs from Clément Mélomé and his band. With the album released on four formats – including a heavyweight gatefold LP – and a bonus film, Strut are putting their attention into this one, and by the time you reach the finale ‘Lion Is Burning’ (featuring their big fans Franz Ferdinand) you feel like the band have earned it. While you need to catch them live to feel the full force, this is both a welcome and assured return to the studio by this incredible band.


It’s one thing to unearth great cuts by an old band, but quite another to dig up the band itself. The 1960s and ‘70s vintage recordings of Benin’s Orchestre Poly-Rythmo De Cotonou collected by the Analog Africa label on African Scream Contest, Legends Of Benin, and two sets devoted solely to the band are amongst the best arguments proffered by the 21st century to keep listening to music. By turns jubilantly propulsive and laconically grooving, the Orchestre’s output made a strong case that they were one of the top funk bands in the world. A combination of great success on their home continent, bad local politics and worse luck conspired to keep them from playing in Europe or the U.S. back in the day. Since then, a few key members died, and although they never completely packed it in, they rarely played between the late ‘80s and 2007.

It was that year that French journalist Elodie Maillot tracked them down for an interview. She got more than she bargained for; saxophonist Melome Clement and bassist Gustave Bentho charged her with getting them to Europe, and she complied. The Orchestre that first toured Europe in 2009 and played the U.S. in 2010 didn’t sound exactly like the spirited Orchestre of yore. A horn section provides more punch than the guitars, which lack the beginner’s mind inventiveness that Zoundegnon “Papillon” Bernard routinely summoned, but they avoided some of the worst missteps (stiff programmed beats, bad keyboard sounds) that trip up so much recent African pop, and they played their old songs with pride and more than sufficient energy.

Now comes the Orchestre’s first album in 20 years, Cotonou Club, and it has some of the bet-hedging one tends to see when musicians don’t trust what they’ve got — re-recordings of old material and guest stars. And what’s with the shortened name? That truncation extends to the song titles; “Dadje Von O Von Non,” which they first recorded with the singer Gnonnas Pedro, is now “Von Vo Nono.” It moves a bit slower now and it has a squiggly Minimoog, massed vocals, and a full horn section instead of the original’s spidery guitars responding to Pedro’s giddy call.

But different doesn’t mean bad; this version has gravitas as well as soul, and when they pick up the tempo and flow into a whooping vocal break, it’s clear that the Orchestre still has that hard-to-nail-down “it.” Likewise, its new version of “Gbeti Madjro” may not be quite so spacious and jittery, but it still hits it hard, and the energy in Clement’s lead vocal matches guest singer Angelique Kidjo’s.

The Orchestre still lives up to the Poly-Rythmo part of its name, taking the Congolese high-life groove of “Ma Vie” at a smoking sprint and mixing wah-wah funk guitar with salsa piano licks on “Koumi Dede.” The band doesn’t play like it wants your mercy; more like it wants you to dance, and if you don’t, it’s your loss.

Still, Cotonou Club is not a perfect album. “Lion Is Burning,” which features two members of Franz Ferdinand, isn’t a total travesty, but with its sore-thumb slide guitar flourishes and over-buffed synths, it does feel like it walked in from another, lesser album. But it’s tucked at the end of the record, easy to avoid if you’re of a mind to do so.


It took far too long for Orchestre Poly-Rythmo — with or without “Tout Puissant” (all-powerful) appended — to make its name beyond Benin, where the group was formed in 1968, and elsewhere in West Africa, where it did all its performing until it toured Europe in 2009 and the Americas in 2010. Now it has made its first studio album since the 1980s: a chance to hear in detail the workings of a great funk band that still plays like young men.

The 11-man Orchestre Poly-Rythmo merges once-forbidden voodoo rhythms from Benin with the many other sounds that were percolating through West Africa in the 1960s and ’70s, among them Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat, James Brown’s funk, Afro-Cuban rumba and salsa, disco’s analog synthesizers and Afro-Brazilian rhythms. Horns punch out soul riffs; singers rasp, hoot and sometimes shout. The syncopated layer of brisk triplet voodoo rhythms from bells, hand drums and shakers — prominent in “Oce,” in which they intertwine with staccato guitars, and in the wah-wah-laced “Tegbe” — may well be the catalyst that makes the songs always seem to be eagerly leaping ahead.

For this album the group combed its huge repertory for surefire material, reviving older songs. The grooves lean toward salsa in “Koumi Dede” and Afrobeat in “C’est Moi ou C’est Lui,” but Orchestre Poly-Rythmo ratchets up the rhythms. Its singers work hard too; in the speedy “Gbeti Madjro,” which has a guest vocal by Angélique Kidjo (also from Benin), the bandleader, Mélomé Clément, answers her with a flat-out raspy scream.

“Cotonou Club” is the latest example of the symbiosis between wrongly obscure funk makers and once-distant fans who push them toward the wider world. It was produced by a determined French journalist, Elodie Maillot, and its final track, “Lion Is Burning,” is a collaboration with Paul Thomson and Nick McCarthy of Franz Ferdinand. The opening rhythm, British-style dance-rock, is a little stiff, but Orchestre Poly-Rythmo doesn’t let it stay that way. It piles on stuttering horns, wah-wah keyboards, quick-scrubbed rhythm guitar, group vocals and a very busy cowbell, and the polyrhythms ignite.


01. Ne Te Fache Pas
02. Pardon
03. Von Vo Nono
04. Koumi Dede
05. Gbeti Madjro (feat. Angélique Kidjo)
06. Oce
07. Tegbe
08. Mariage / Cest Moi Ou C’est Lui (feat. Fatoumata Diawara)
09. Holonon
10. Ma Vie
11. Lion Is Burning (feat. Paul Thomson & Nick Mccarthy from Franz Ferdinand)

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