Music

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo: Cotonou Club

It's really them, rising out of the past, slightly tamer, the sound not as tight as it used to be, but, still, them.


Orchestre Poly-Rythmo

Cotonou Club

Label: Strut
US Release Date: 2011-04-12
UK Release Date: 2011-03-28
Artist website
Amazon
iTunes

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."

8

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image