Orchestre Poly-Rythmo, or, to give the group its full title, the T.P. (Tout Puissant) Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou—Cotonou being the largest city in the band’s native Benin, housing somewhere near a million people at the brisk sea-mouth of the Ouémé River—played its first shows in the mid-1960s as part of a group called Sunny Black’s Band under the leadership of one Professor William Creppy. A few years later in 1968 or ‘69, the Orchestre’s founder, Clément Mélomé, decided on an independent name.
The Orchestre played all sorts of styles, a mixture: afrobeat, soukous, jerk, odes to women, a song in favour of the nearby Ivory Coast, songs sung by the terrifically voiced Gnonnas Pedro, songs informed by voudoun Sato drumming, by James Brown, by the different parts of the country where the different musicians had grown up, songs in Fon, in Yoruba, in colonial French—a flood of songs, over 500 in total, a flood of album covers showing off the band members in tight flares, young men dressed in the styles of the 1970s, the group’s decade of prosperity and fame.
But it was 2009 before the Orchestre toured Europe. In July 2010, it played its first show in the Americas, at the Lincoln Center in New York. I had some vague idea of this, in the wayward way that people absorb information from their environments without paying an intense amount of attention, but what astonished me, reading it in Simon Broughton’s Guardian article about the band, was the fact that Orchestre Poly-Rythmo had managed to virtually vanish for three decades without ever breaking up.
But in the early 1980s, under the Marxist dictatorship of Mathieu Kérékou, Benin entered a period of economic hardship and decline. The band survived, but with precious few engagements, many, even in Benin, thought Poly-Rythmo were history.
One of their lead singers had died in the interim, and so had their star guitarist Papillon, but Mélomé‘s leadership remained intact. The French music journalist Elodie Maillot tracked the group down with difficulty in 2007 and the overseas engagements started there. All of the retrospective compilations released in the English-speaking world, which were the only Poly-Rythmo albums I’d heard, were full of tracks recorded in the 1970s, and I’d thought the 1980s had finished them. So when I saw news of tours and Cotonou Club, I thought, “They’re back together!” But it was the international profile that needed reassembling, not the band. They’d even put out a fresh album, Nouvelle Formule…, in 2007, a Benin release, the band members on the cover no longer wearing flares, or anything tight, but flat caps and loose shirts, their faces looking much older.
The songs they play on Cotonou Club will be recognisable to anyone who has heard those retro-compilations—the playlist opens onto “Ne Te Faches Pas” from an early comp, Miles Cleret’s brilliant Kings of Benin Urban Groove 1972-80, released by Soundway in 2005. The first few notes wander out. The hairs on the back of the neck stand up. It’s really them, rising out of the past, slightly tamer, the sound not as tight and fast as it used to be, but, still, them. The hard hard singing and playing, almost inhuman, amoral, in its fierceness—the aspect of the group that was brought out by the Analog Africa compilation Echos Hypnotiques—is not so hard any more. Perhaps this is down to the slowed speed of the singers, a new vocal weakness that keeps the sung notes short, and the efforts of the instrumentalists adjusting to them. The brass in “Pardon” seems to moderate itself with more care after the voices have come in. Or am I imagining that? The ululations just don’t attack you in the old way.
Would a new listener notice? I don’t think so. The Orchestre works around it, and you can hardly tell. The fraying at the edge of Mélomé‘s voice is faint, faint, faint. The percussion nips confidently at the brass in “Oce”, the vocal to-and-fro in “Pardon” doesn’t need long notes to make it interesting, and the tunes are still dense and wonderful, the rhythmic voudoun attributes, the afrofunk saxophones, the gotcha of the Cuban piano in “Koumi Dede”: everything, everything. Cotonou Club builds through “Von Vo Nono”, “Ma Vie”, “Holonon”, to a brutal climax in “Lion is Burning”, for which they’re joined by Paul Thomson and Nick McCarthy from Franz Ferdinand. The British musicians are fans.
Earlier in the album the Beninese have collaborated with Angélique Kidjo, who was born in Cotonou herself, and the Wassalou singer Fatoumata Diawara, but the lithe and candied sound that the other two collaborators contribute to Cotonou Club—and the abruptness of those ductile female voices landing then evaporating in the middle of this heavier singing by older men seemed more startling than welcome—is overwhelmed by the crash of “Lion”, which is not only the last song on the album but also its dramatic crescendo—a song like a thunderhead. It died away and I was left tingling, grinning, saying to myself, “A live show that ended with that song might be the best live show I’ve ever seen.”
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