[14 June 2012]
Compiler Samy ben Redjeb, whom I’ve heard has contracted a respiratory infection from the cardboard covers of old records, has released a track from this Beninese band before, “Congolaise Benin Ye”, on Analog Africa’s 2008 compilation, African Scream Contest. After that, he put together a few single-band albums from a different Benin ‘70s group, the brash and powerful Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo.
Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo comes from Cotonou, the country’s largest city. The Orchestre Super Borgou comes from Parakou, a smaller city, miles away to the north, all brown buildings standing sunstruck within the département named Borgou. The press blurb for the album has decided that Parakou falls inside an “Islamic funk zone”, a promotional nickname for a swath of land that cuts across those parts of Benin, Togo, and Ghana, where Muslims have ancestrally lived and traded, though my own original inkling of any such thing as a West African IFZ came courtesy of the dreadlocked Senegalese Mouride Muslim Cheikh Lô and his 1999 release, Bambay Gueej. Benin as a whole is generally voudoun-Christian.
The same press blurb lets me know that Super Borgou’s founder’s father brought “modern music” back with him when he returned from a stint working in a Ghanaian mine during the 1950s (“His return to Borgou and and subsequent teachings spawned countless bands”). Borgou is predominantly inhabited by the Bariba people, and it is also the home of the Dendi, whose name appears in footnoting parentheses next to various tracks. “Dadon Gabou Yo Sa Be No. 2” is “Afro Beat Dendi”; “Sembe Sembe Boudou” is “Folklore Dendi”; and “Bori Yo Se Mon Baani” reminds you of Africa’s mid-century enthusiasm for Cuban music by being “Pachanga Dendi”. The nearby Fon get a single look-in with “Me Ton Le Gbe”, which is “Pachanga Fon”.
At a base level, the equation of Super Borgou’s music is the same as Poly-Rhythmo’s (i.e., local dances and songs plus a big-band Afro-foreign sound); both aspects transforming one another, so that the funk doesn’t sound like funk elsewhere, and the dances don’t sound the way they used to either. Yet the two bands are different, and if you wanted to tie those differences down to the cities in the band names, you could say that Poly is big-city pushy and Super Borgou is small-city patient. Poly-Rhythmo has its massy blasting sound, a display of huge achievement, noises to keep you on your toes, waiting for the next shock. Meanwhile, The Orchestre Super Borgou is effervescent and insinuating. It waits; it builds. The songs wash round like persistent sponges and buff you and buff and buff until whatever coat of resistance you had is worn through.
What makes them effervescent? Mainly the guitars, penetrating and unearthly like icicles. That indirect sparkling sound reminded me of another Analog Africa album, not one of the recent ones, and not even West African, but one of the label’s early releases from Zimbabwe, 4 Track Recording Session, by The Green Arrows, another group of musicians who played as if their feet didn’t completely touch the ground.