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Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou

The Skeletal Essence of Voodoo Funk 1960 - 1980

(Analog Africa; US: 14 May 2013; UK: 29 Apr 2013)

We’re told by the publicists that Samy ben Redjeb, travelling to Benin more than once and searching assiduously, looking, looking, has managed to assemble a collection of about 500 T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou tracks, “most of the Orchestre’s output recorded between 1969 and 1983,” so these retrospective compilations could be going on for a while and even longer than a while if he ever fills the space occupied by “most of.”


I missed his first Orchestre compilation, The Voudoun Effect, and picked up the second, Echos Hypnotiques, an album that could have been named “Loud Force”, the lead singer charging at you, rhinoceros-like, never relenting, and I preferred another of his Beninoise compilations released the same year, Legends of Benin a compilation of different bands. Hypnotiques was excellent but I was battered by its excellence.


Other Orchestre albums haven’t been like that: this one isn’t. And now I see the value of the Echos Hypnotiques. It was a powerful example of one branch of their sound, and this one is more diffuse.


This one is slower and you have time to go limp and admire the scenery.


Poly-Rythmo had a firmer grip on their groove than most other bands—they function so well because they hit a groove early on in each track and the whole song moves along with that groove, everything gets whipped into the whirlpool—and they had more going on than most other bands as well. The large group had a reason to be a large group, the ideas must have come—I can picture them coming—from a large and active hive mind, from many people all with ideas for the pot of ideas. There’s the humpy rough keyboard-bump in “Karateka”, the gradual axe of “N’goua”, the voice pushing forward through an instrumental line that tries to retard it and drag it backwards, the squeaky trumpets in the same song, so peaky that they could have been just irritating, so many things that could have gone wrong but didn’t.


With the band tackling Afrobeat in one song—spotlight on the keyboardist, who has been listening to overseas psychedelic rock—and then playing songs labelled “Jerk Sakpata” or “Jerk Fon” to indicate the kinds of West African ideas that have gone into them, Sakpata being the god of smallpox and a powerful figure, Fon being the same ethnic group that gave a name to the city of Cotonou. The sound is light and high and fast, and in “Vi E Lo” we see why the Cuban and Latin music that ran through middle and western Africa has affected their restless sound in a way that did not seem to affect their contemporary Fela Kuti.


They detected this smorgasbord of “rhythmes” around them, and swallowed up one then the other for another song. It’s as though a—I’ll say a British band—as though a British band had written one song by borrowing an Irish melody, one song with Scottish folk elements, one jazz tune, and had subsumed all of it into their core sound and personality.


Thinking of this androiding group-work, the group that could draw the extensive universe into their cumulative music, there’s extra sadness or extra indignation around the fact that Mélomé Clément, saxophonist and Orchestre-founder, passed away of heart failure only last December, at the age of 67, and just as the band has comeback too, releasing a new album, Cotonou Club, two years ago in 2011. Its distressing to think of this coherent bunch being disintegrated. No, you think, no: that hi-hat at the start of “A O O Ida”, that should not go, the unearthly crisp repetition of the horn there, the person responsible for that should not die, the singer should not die, the keyboard player should not die, this man who makes an evil squelch for one instant in “Pourquoi pas”, none of them should die.

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Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo de Cotonou - "Houzou Houzou Wa"
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