Jun 14, 2011
Interview with Clément Mélomé, leader of Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou from March 2009
The interview was originally published at the amazing French website afrosouldescarga.blogspot.com.
Unfortunately, my french is not good enough, therefore, the translation was technically supported. Due to this there may be some mistakes in the english version of the french orginal but it still seems to interesting to hide for me. Enjoy!!!
Can you tell me about your background, your history with Poly Rythmo?
First, I was a chorister. After primary school I got here (Cotonou), I attended college but I could not continue their studies. When, at the time, Gege Vicki released records, I also wanted to do. That's when I had the vocation to become a musician. After I started writing songs. When I started doing this, I was with some Lohento eSkill and a certain Francis Houessou. We formed a small group. After we joined the band Sunny Black Band, which was led by a Creppy Wallace was a professor of sport in France but came here during the holidays. It was he who wanted to just join the orchestra. We arranged it because we too had recitals and we used to play his instruments.
Well, after him he must return to France and he appointed conductor. It is from that time we wrote the first songs. Eg "Angelina" is also at this time which was accompanied by some spotlight as Blucky D'Almeida, Avolonto Honoré and others. Afterwards, when Creppy left we had a few stories with his family because, well, it's not easy managing an orchestra. We must pay our travel, our food and stuff there. So we got a little angry with the family and that's where we left. That's when we met a keeper bars and dance halls, also the patron of Polydisco, vendor records. He bought us our instruments. He wanted it called "Poly-orchestra" and I said "No, Poly-orchestra that means several orchestras. Me, I preferred "rhythmic", "poly-rhythmic" and we kept that name. He, too, he could not keep and we sold our instruments Nikou (?). We left and we Albarika store bought instruments and it is from this that we started doing real things, good things. We made many records with him. It was still in a revolutionary period and we have supported the Revolution because it was they who came to us asking us to be at the forefront of the revolution. So we composed many pieces and were sustained for at least eighteen years (laughs). But we have not won anything because, well, we were poor, the revolution also had nothing, he had to change too much because there was a coup and they came and they destroyed it. It seemed something good for the country because coups all the time is not good. At this time we did a lot of records with Albarika store. Sometimes it was cheating with other producers because qu'Albarika not paying very well. We cheated a little. It was a lot of touring, many trips. We played the FESTAC 1977 in Lagos and it has allowed us to let us know because Radio France Inter arrived and talked a lot about us. That's how we were called in Angola. It was in France but was not played. It was Libya, Burkina Faso, where we played with Thomas Sankara, Congo, Gabon. It imitated the great stars of that time. There was James Brown, Johnny Hallyday, Richard Anthony ... A lot of celebrities and this time it was the jerk So we too went back in there and we made a lot of songs but Fon jerk. They sang songs in a maximum of Fon. That is, so we imitated the star. Fela Moszkowicz was imitated as that which is Afrobeat, a pace that was a lot of walking in Benin and Africa. There was also salsa, and then it was mainly influenced by Congolese music.
You imitate the Congolese salsa or the Cubans?
That of the Cubans. We played with the Orchesta Aragon, with Johnny Pacheco ...
Clement MELOME: Because it was the first orchestra, the most esteemed of Benin. If a star was playing, she was playing with Polyrythmo. We accompanied all the stars who arrived in Cotonou. So we played with all Cameroonians, Congolese, Ivorians, all those stars who arrived in Cotonou, there was not another band that could accompany them properly. That's how our name was really high.
The music of Fela was a very politically involved music. He said things daring at the time on Obasanjo on Policy. Do you listen to his words, what he said about Africa? How did you receive at the time his lyrics?
We had the time to people who knew the Yoruba. For example he (pointing the finger at Gustavus Bento), he knew the Yoruba. So we did not take the songs that insulted the government. No, no, no. We took songs that spoke of morals ... The background music as "Lady" was performed many pieces of Fela, but it did not take the songs too political.
Even on the day we went to Nigeria to play in a festival, he invited us into his bar (the Shrine), we paid to drink shots. We stayed a bit but there was only one who could play some songs.
Yes, we played once there, we played our songs, it was he who had invited us. Albarika was arranged and we got to sleep in the bar because he had rooms upstairs.
And how the public reacted to Lagos to your music?
That is to say it was an audience that liked our music. First we made the FESTAC 1977. We wrote a piece for the festival. And that really makes a lot of noise. France Inter has finished second but the hosts, him, we ranked first.
You were saying earlier how difficult it was to earn his living as a musician, even within the Polyrythmo. What about today? Under what circumstances do you play? Keep you still recording albums?
Well, life was hard but it was doing anyway. We earned our lives and it was the golden age because with a little money you could do everything. We spent a good living. Now it's a bit difficult. First, to begin our guitarist died, with a large following of members who have left. For example, the drummer, singer Vicky, then other parties are as Eskil. So it's difficult, but we spotted the young people who play with us, we have not lost our style of play. But making records with youth, we can not. So what do we do now, is that when there is something very important we take musicians who can play and play with us. There a. Among ventistes example, there are very good ventistes.
And so if I understand there are things that you come play in France later this year?
That is to say that with the disc that came out (compilation of tracks from 1970's of Polyrythmo published in Analog Africa) we found a woman who wanted to RFI do things for us to play there . She has already sent the contract was signed and now it will look where you can play.
To return to Fela, Europe, everyone thinks he invented Afrobeat, what do you think?
Yes it's true. It was he who invented the rhythm "chankokou".
Yes, it has improved their folklore.
And then we met often in the studio at the time at EMI studio in Akpakpa, Nigeria. Often we had to work in one day and him in the night.
Why did you go to Nigeria to register?
Because there was no good studio in Benin. When we started in Cotonou was the "Nagra" (4-track recorder), you know?
Yes, yes, it is with a Nagra I am trying to save ...
At the time we placed the "Nagra" there on the table and we were playing around the microphone. That's how we recorded. But after that, our producer he was accustomed to people from Nigeria, he knew a lot of studios, EMI, Decca, and he preferred to take us there. He had a car, he took us in and we would do the album there.
Gustave Bento: It was the producer Albarika store. It was called "Dion" (Adissa Seidou).
That was the best.
We even bought the instruments.
What is a good producer for you?
When I say a good producer is not because it pays well. But that is to say, he handled many musicians. We bought the instruments, he bought a car and then for the musicians who had a lot of value, he bought us all cars, motorcycles, all that. He kept us well.
Is he working with you on building pieces?
No no, it was not a musician, he was a trader's it. But he has sold a lot, because he sold until Côte d'Ivoire, everywhere.
He sent us play in Côte d'Ivoire the first time by plane.
You listen to other bands of the era as African Bembeya Jazz, the Super Rail Band, The Baobab ...?
All bands who came to play here, they played with us. We played with Bembeya Jazz several times with the Rail Band, with the Amazons of Guinea, several times. It has also played with Nahawa Doumbia from Mali, he was accompanied here. We had a dean who played with us, it Tidiani Kone (Mali saxophonist, founder of the Super Rail Band du Buffet Hotel de la station, Bamako). A good saxophonist.
There was not very far, in Burkina, artists like Amadou Ballake which repeated many James Brown you know them, you listen?
They knew, but was not played with. At the time there, as in Niger, the music was not very advanced. Even in Côte d'Ivoire, there were only Lugris Francis (?) And then Ernesto Djedje. For Ghana, we knew the Ramblers and the Set (?) Band, they were four. With them our old guitarist, Butterfly, began to play. We accompanied all the musicians of the time as Danialou Sagbohan. With us he has done his bit "gbeto vivi".
It was in Libya and the people made us sign papers to prove that we do not carry liquor. It was not, but got there to check they had not transported liquor they dropped the amp to verify. They were shattered. Half the instruments were smashed. At this point, it was revolutionary period, and the revolution began to have trouble. We wrote to the president, we received but nobody has done anything. That's how we lost our instruments. Today when we play, we made the rental of instruments.
How Beninese youth reacts when you play today?
All youth orchestras, they play our songs. They do not even want that emerges because, well, wherever they go, there's always our songs. There are even those who take our songs. For example, me, my song "Raffle," someone took it. They appreciate our music.
For example, if a concert, we are left to play last. Because if you play first, then he is no one, everyone goes home (laughter from both).
It's like this, not that boasts, but it worked.
Do you have any funny anecdotes about the time?
We had heard a song Zaire is "baya baya-', so when we came back from Côte d'Ivoire was made something like this piece then, for the revolution. And when President Houphouet-Boigny had heard that he wanted the orchestra is the orchestra of the television. He wanted us to take as national orchestra. It was said that the song had been made was revolutionary and asked not to play it on the radio ... (laughs).
And later, as he could not have us as conductor, he organized a patriotic song competition in Côte d'Ivoire there. And he has at least 20 million (CFA) and he only wanted the first. The first 13 million won and four others shared the rest as a consolation prize. And then our producer came and asked: "Compose something". - "But I'm not Ivorian."
He came on Monday, the competition ended on Saturday, so he came on Monday and he said: "Compose something." So we worked Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, we went to Lagos, was recorded. On Friday, he left him in Lagos, he took the samples, he left, he gave it to the radio played. Houphouet-Boigny has heard this and he said no. What we asked them, they could not do it, they do not bring the price of expatriates ... And that's how I received anonymous letters, threats (laughter). And so this is our song that has sold like hotcakes. It's "Côte d'Ivoire darling" (Gustave sings: "Land of coffee, pineapple country ..."). It has many funny things, but we must remember them (laughs) ...