Given the correct environment, with the correct influences at the correct time, some very powerful musical transformations can occur. Look at rock music, for example, developing from raucous blues, gospel and folk music in the black community and being made possible with the utilization of the relatively new electric guitar. Or punk, where groups of disparate musicians decided to distance themselves from the growing self-indulgence of rock n’ roll and strip down their sound to the bare bones. Such movements and music are born as much through circumstance as through the individual’s decisions, and in situations where there are multiple influences and utilization of different styles, the music can go to some very exciting and interesting places. Orchestre-Poly Rhythmo De Cotonou is to me a fantastic example of this.
Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo hail from the tiny African country of Benin, situated in the area of the continent where the Voodoo religion originated. To my understanding, Voodoo is much like other religions in that it encompasses not only a belief system but a certain type of culture; preferred foods, musical styles etc. The Orchestre frequently perform pieces based on these traditional Voodoo rhythms, but with such an eclectic mix of other styles it is literally impossible to pigeonhole them. Their music contains a hefty dose of funk influence, mixed with 60’s psychedelia, Latin beats, and of course some traditional African musical styles such as Soukous. The result is frankly quite bizarre, but more rewarding with each listen. I was given a copy of Volume One – “The Vodoun Effect” over Christmas, and on first listen I was completely taken aback. It was uncannily like the funk of James Brown or the Isley Brothers, sung in French, with a little bit of African instrumentation thrown in. Volume One is probably better and more accessible, but I’m focusing on Volume Two “Echos Hypnotiques” due to it wearing its influences on its sleeve a bit more.
The instruments tell a lot about the sort of music you can expect. Most of the song feature congos and very loose, funky drums, bass, electric guitar, psychedelic organ and passionately wild horns. Like a lot of African music, songs are frequently characterized by a strong sense of rhythm, but that’s not strictly where the emphasis lies. Many of the songs are driven by the flair of the horns, (Agnon Dekpe) the striking guitar (Noude Ma Gnin Tche De Me) or even strange organ riffs. (Mede Ma Gnin Messe; a 9 minute powerhouse of a track built on said repeating riff with a strong funky drum beat and punctuated by a separate horn riff. Probably my favourite cut on the album) In a sense it all still sounds very “African,” the very core of the music is after all based on these ancient Voodoo rhythms. But in their utilization of many different styles and instruments not typical of the continent, Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo De Cotonou have succeeded in creating a type of music that is drastically different and uniquely their own. It appears that few musical styles escape their notice; Zizi is seemingly completely out of place as it is almost entirely in the Carribean calypso style. As the founder of the Orchestre Melome Clement said; "Drums, bells and horns are the fundamental instruments used during our traditional Vodoun rituals - we added guitars and Organs - we modernised those ancients rhythms and combined them with western genres that were on vogue at that time".
The story of how this music was neatly assembled for us recently (the album was out in 2009) is quite remarkable in itself. The Orchestre have been active since the 60’s and still continue to record and tour to this day, but it was in the 60’s and 70’s when they appeared to be at the height of their creativity. However, their audience was very small, performing mostly locally and supporting larger Beninese stars and composers. It wasn’t until Samy Ben Redjeb, the founder of the label Analog Africa, heard one of the tracks from this album that he embarked on a 4-year search through Northwest Africa to track down some more of their material. After sifting through a colossal 500 songs, tracking down the master tapes and listening to the recordings, some of which were quite lo-fi, selected recordings were compiled together and released as Volume One in 2008. Volume Two is recorded in considerably better quality and presents a more uniform and slightly less wild sound. Emerging from deepest Africa to our CD players 40 years later, it truly is an amazing occurrence.
Words - Adam