TP still All Powerful (unlike me who failed to click "publish")

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.

the band

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.

And by the gods it is (although more accurately Deity helpers or Orishas) – the music has its roots in the Vodun religion, as explained on the Analog Africa record label website:

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.

part 2

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.

Joan As Police Woman – the gig

Well I’m very glad I went. I got there at just the right moment, I reckon, when it wasn’t so crowded that I couldn’t get a spot right in front of the stage but not so early that there were hours to wait.

I took up my position feeling like I was doing a very good impersonation of a pro. Looked at the position of the singer’s mic, the lighting, set various important-seeming settings on the camera. Of course I’d forgotten that she (Joan) divides her time between keyboards and guitar so I ended up on the wrong side of the stage and therefore not in the best position at all.

she wore a hat

She wore a hat. She told us it had been a bit of a last-minute decision. She took it off later and apologised for her hair being such a terrible mess. I found the effect anything but unpleasant.

she took off the hat

Here’s another one of bassist Rainy Orteca. Is it as good as the one I put up yesterday? I dunno. Slightly out of focus, no smile, but I’m not sure I don’t prefer it.

rainy orteca - bassist

The drummer, Parker Kindred (what a great name it is, now that I’ve discovered it), spent a lot of the time with his brow furrowed in a worried-looking fashion like an emaciated bloodhound. In this picture he looks somewhat more sanguine.

-)

I love watching musicians. The intense inward concentration, the expressions sometimes bordering on agony; it reminds me of people enjoying really good sex.

she played guitar

I’m sure it’s a comparison Joan would appreciate. She explained that the song (from the forthcoming album To Survive) Hard White Wall was a song about lust and the consummation thereof against the eponymous structure.

So, as TG pointed out on the previous post, enough with the visuals already, what was the music like? I am sorry to have to report that the sound balance was so appalling that I can’t really give any meaningful appraisal. Maybe it was my position at the front of the stage, but I really can’t imagine that I should not have been able to hear the vocals above the keyboards.

The opening song was To Be Loved which is lined up to be the first single from the new album. She was nervous, visibly and audibly nervous, but warmed up quickly.

The set mixed new material with the three tracks from Real Life which had been released as singles – Flushed Chest, Christable and, as the encore, Eternal Flame. Of the forthcoming release I’m already familiar with To Be Lonely, Start Of My Heart and Furious from the video of the concert she gave at Amsterdam’s Paradiso which appears no longer to be online.

For all these tracks it was just about ok that the overall sound quality was rubbish and the balance appalling, I was singing along anyway. But when it came the stuff I hadn’t already heard it was extremely frustrating.

Worst of all was right at the end. After the encore drummer and bassist left the stage leaving Joan alone at the keyboard. And every sound she made produced a rattling noise akin to the sound of stage thunder from the speaker. It sounded to me like an open mic over the drum kit picking up some kind of resonance off one of the skins. Or maybe by then the speakers themselves were ashamed of the noise they were having to pump out and were giving up the will to sound.

So the finale of the evening, the title track of the album, To Survive, was for me entirely ruined by the accompaniment of the rattling of dried chickpeas in a large tin trunk.

But if I had to draw a conclusion I would say that the new album looks to be as powerful as the debut with a mix of haunting, intimate songs and the harder, faster and syncopated beats of Hard White Wall and spitting power of Furious. As a performer she is protean in her ability to move from tender to ferocious, she’s witty and charming as she riffs with the audience while retuning her guitar. Oh, and her footwear is always worth drooling over. I shall definitely buy the album when it comes out, and would love to see her again live, with the added and as yet unachieved advantage of being able to hear her properly as well.

(Gig on 17 April 2008 at the Roundhouse FREEDM Studio [“the square room in the round building”])

The gig and the battery

My battery’s running low and that of my camera totally died during the Joan As Police Woman gig. I’d expected this, charged up the spare (actually it was the spare in the camera, cheap, short life, swift death and generally not very satisfactory) but then rushed out leaving the reliable one still on the charger.

Can you imagine how frustrating it was to have merely to look at the beautiful images moving one after another in front of my eyes without being able to attempt to capture them? Well, it was difficult that’s for sure.

Too tired to process all the pics tonight, and still got yesterday’s trip with Neha to sort through, so here is a teaser to be going on with. Sort of head to toe without the head.

necklace
tuning
shoes

Those shoes are so utterly wonderful. I want several pairs in various colours. And the painless acquisition of the ability to walk in them.

JAPW is a trio. The bassist was introduced as the “enigmatic” Rainy Orteca (or was it “mysterious”?)

rainy orteca

And this is the drummer whose name I’ve forgotten and will find out tomorrow.

drummer

I’m really very pleased with some of the pictures.

The gift of sound and vision

I’m still marvelling at the liberating, but nowadays straightforward, delights of digital photography and the net. Others have taken things oh so much further and are making wild and wonderful multimedia marvellousness. I’m thinking of three people in particular – Alistair, Natalie and an anonymous YouTube user.

Here we have a roaming eye out in the world, a city both specific and universal, juxtaposing snatched moments with each other, with music, repeated visual patterns and variations matched to a deceptively simple and equally haunting piece of music.

Natalie’s world is if anything even huger although filming is confined to the interior of her flat. Just watch A is for Alternative Reality to see how enormous it is. She also made the accompanying music. An even smaller physical space features in A Day at the Seaside – the area of a canvas. The camera moves over one of her paintings exploring the elements that make up the whole, recombining them along a temporal rather than merely two-dimensional framework, again with a custom-composed score.

Alistair too has used moving images and sounds/music together but his most recent multi-media post does not. It has a still image accompanied by a score of his own composition. The additional ingredient here is words. In elizabeth bishop “electrical storm” the poet’s words are used both visually and musically, layered, reorganised, allowed to vibrate and resonate between each other, image and sound.

Such extraordinary and beautiful and loving and breathtaking pieces of work.

(The title owes much to a recent re-discovery/exploration the genius of my youth and gives me an excuse, while in embedding mode, to add the following.)

Laura Marling – iTunes Live Session

It was a peculiar sort of atmosphere – a small venue, not very full, possibly the most expensive horrible beer in the world and all very polite and restrained. However I think it’s a mistake to think of this in terms of a gig, it being more a live recording session.

Laura Marling - sitting

Laura was on first. The performance was polished and assured, none of the nerves I thought I detected in her live song on radio 4’s Loose Ends on 16 February. She looks as though someone’s given her a bit of a makeover, the sharp haircut making her look both more sophisticated and younger at the same time. The audience was quiet and unresponsive, sadly.

“Why listen to sub-Joni when you can go home and put on Blue; she’s brilliant live too” was the (paraphrased) reaction of one of our party who also deprecated the lack of moshing.

Despite her clearly not being Joni Mitchell (whom she apparently adores and with whom she is frequently compared) I still find her material wonderfully enjoyable. She was accompanied on stage by the multi-talented Marcus Mumford who played at least six different instruments, sometimes several at a time.

Marcus Mumford - ukulele

She wasn’t the only act. Also on the bill were the Mystery Jets with whom she performed a song (Young Love, their forthcoming single) at the end of her set.

Mystery Jets (dubious knitwear 2)

There was a certain amount of bad hair and dubious knitwear on display among the band members.

The other act was a young man called Natty, for whom the word “winsome” is an inadequate description.

Natty

He was on after Laura and, frankly, drove us away. We collectively decided we could live without seeing more acrylic sweaters (the Mystery Jets were on last) and promptly decamped to a nearby pub which the ever-knowledgeable Hg assured us served real, delicious beer at normal London prices.

(The photoset from the evening can be seen here.)