Being in the presence of the music of the Tout Puissant Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou is like… well it’s like being massaged by one of those road-mending whumpy things (albeit with a padded thumpy bit) at an above heartbeat rate of mind-bending rhythmic complexity operated by James Brown on ayahuasca. In a really fantastically good way.
That’s still true today (or, more accurately, last night [now more than a month ago, but hey, who’s counting]) more than 40 years after the band was founded. Perhaps the energy had something to do with the fact that the date was particularly auspicious being the 64th birthday of founding member Clement Melome (Benin’s current average life expectancy at birth: 59 years). They may be pensioners – from the great distance of the Barbican balcony Clement Melome’s rotund figure and large white cap made him look like a middle-aged woman on a shopping trip – but by the gods they can still FUNK.
The cultural and spiritual riches of traditional Beninese music had an immense impact on the sound of Benin’s modern music. Benin is the birthplace of Vodun (also Vodoun, or, as it is known in the West, Voodoo), a religion which involves the worship of some 250 sacred divinities. The rituals used to pay tributes to those divinities are always backed by music. The majority of the complex poly-rhythms of the Vodun are still more or less secret and difficult to decipher, even for an accomplished musician. Anthropologists and ethnomusicologists agree that this religion constitutes the principal “cultural bridge” between Africa and all its Diasporas of the New World and in a reflection of the power and influence of these sounds many of the complex rhythms were to have a profound impact on the other side of the Atlantic on rhythms as popular as Blues, Jazz, Cuban and Brazilian music.
Two Vodun rhythms dominate the music of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo: Sato, an amazing, energetic rhythm performed using an immense vertical drum, and Sakpata, a rhythm dedicated to the divinity who protects people from smallpox.
So there’s this astonishing mix. There are rhythms the like of which are not heard anywhere else. Then there’s the funk of James Brown:
According to their sax player Pierre Loko, who I met this month in Paris, while the word funk came from America, the rhythms are from Africa, and particularly Benin “We had a style called additivo which was very similar – and then we heard James Brown and thought he was doing African music”. What they did learn form Brown, he says, “was his energy, his showmanship, his style”. What actually resulted was a two- way conversation, with James Brown’s band visiting Africa “we learned from each other”.
This conversational style they call voodoo funk. And why not. But there’s a third interlocutor – Brazil:
Ironically, few of the musicians that have graced the Orchestre Poly Rythmo since it began in 1966 are professionally trained. They draw inspiration from a heritage that is rooted on Benin’s Atlantic Coast, where the Agoudas live. This ethno-linguistic group are descendants of former Brazilian slaves who returned to West Africa at the end of the 19th century, bringing back protosamba songs and dances that impregnated the local traditions.
The Orchestre has been able to mix this heritage with a fascination for African American funk, Latin grooves and the home-grown rhythms that punctuate voodoo ceremonies. Most of their 500 songs were recorded live with a couple of microphones and a Swiss-made Nagra reel-to-reel tape machine. The studio was a living room in the noisy neighbourhood near Cotonou’s airport.
Despite being massive in Benin, huge across West Africa, things were not always easy even when the band took the politically expedient route so many did, as singer Vincent Ahehehinnou told Independent journalist Nick Hasted:
“After the revolution [when Mathieu Kerekou’s regime, installed in 1972, began totalitarian, Marxist-Leninist inspired oppression in 1975], we were not allowed to play after 11pm on weekdays. And when the people came out of the venue, the police were waiting for them. If they picked you up outside a nightclub, they would say you were imperialist and anti-revolutionary! People were forbidden to hang out in the dark. They were disappointed and desperate, and didn’t even want to step out of their house any more. We feel bitter.”
Typically for Africa then, Poly- Rythmo were made the national orchestra by the new regime, and played its patriotic songs daily at the presidential palace. But even on a state-sponsored trip to Libya, trouble found them. “At the Libyan airport, the organiser said because we were musicians we were drug addicts. They took us to the third floor of the airport to check everything. Then they threw our instruments through the windows. And the government didn’t replace them. So it became harder and harder to play.”
So the gig. Well, it was great. So they’re old men. So they shuffle rather than shimmy. So what? The music’s still great. All those words – driving, pulsing, psychadelic – they’re still applicable.
There’s a wonderful story behind this the band’s first European tour.
The Kings of Benin Urban Groove 1972-80 which is apparently being reissued this week [now, err, last month] and there’s another compilation “Echos Hypnotiques – From the vaults of Albarika Store, 1969-1979 (Volume two)” out on 26 October [now also last month] on Analog Africa.