[29 November 2009]
Echos Hypnotiques starts with tick-clap tick-clap, and the spaces between those ticks and claps are the last bits of loose, uninhabited air we hear until the end of the album 78 minutes later. Brass comes in and everything is speed, density, singing, singing, and churning, churning, ideas from Afro-America, ideas from Afro-Africa, afrobeat, vodoun, percussive sato, venerable sakpata, ideas from the French mid-century rocker Johnny Hallyday, ideas from, I swear, psychedelic Britain: the keyboard lushly bleeds and drools, and the lead singer urges it forward like a shepherd pushing his sly and dawdling lambs with a crook made up of ejaculated syllables that sound sometimes like this: “Tcha! Tcha!” He’s singing in—well, I’d have to look it up. Fon? Fon. The press kit promises that, in the commercial release, things like languages will be explained in a:
44 page booklet filled with … pictures of the band, a complete discography, and a biography tracing the band from its foundation as Groupe Meloclem in 1964 via Sunny Black’s band , Orchestre Poly-Rythmo , El Ritmo  and finally, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou in 1968.
I don’t have that booklet, but judging from the standard of Samy ben Redjeb’s past booklets, I’m going to assume that it will be as good as it sounds. Caveat emptor, I don’t know for sure. But anyone willing to trace the tangled web of those African bands that form, re-form, argue, split in half, borrow new members from somebody else, find a fresh patron, re-name themselves—etc etc—is showing some kind of exemplary dedication. The first two times I reviewed Analog Africa’s releases, I pointed out that the label didn’t have a website and I don’t think I’ve ever corrected that, so here, now, is the address: analogafrica.blogspot.com.
Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou comes from Benin. That “de Cotonou” in the name gives away its hometown, Cotonou, the country’s largest and most financially bustling city, sitting on the coastline in the south. The Orchestre was introduced to mainstream modern western listeners in 2004 when the British label Soundway released a Poly-Rythmo retrospective. Four years later, Analog Africa released a different one. That album covered the years 1972-1975, and the music was drawn from the vaults of various labels. This new, third album runs from 1969 to 1979 and takes its tracks from a single label, Albarika. Why Albarika alone? Because Albarika released only slightly less than half the Poly-Rythmo tracks that the compiler ben Redjeb found when he started digging. There were 200 Albarika tracks to choose from, announces the press kit. 500 songs in all. And then I check the track lists of the three retrospectives to make sure there isn’t any overlap, and when I see there isn’t, I feel silly for even having looked. With hundreds of tracks to choose from, why would you need to repeat them?
Earlier this year, Analog Africa released Legends of Benin, a compilation of different bands. Where that album was wide, this album is deep. Legends of Benin‘s El Rego imitates James Brown, but the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo assimilates him, and others too, making everything cohere in a style that is theirs: Poly-Rythmo style, played with the flair of a band that took each new idea as a challenge and an opportunity, rather than a reason to feel overwhelmed. The relentlessness of this music is exhilarating, the thickness of it, the groove, the band’s refusal to let the listener slow down. Everything is sweet, deep, rich. None of the other 1970s Benin bands on Legends are quite this distinctive.