If the map of the world were redrawn with areas scaled so that their sizes matched their musical reputations then West Africa would take up a fair chunk of the planet. Senegal and Mali would occupy most of the chunk, Nigeria would be a solid block with “Kuti” printed boldly across the middle, and Benin would be a tiny almost-unnoticed sliver with “Angelique Kidjo” handwritten in wobbly neon lettering along the edge. Right now she’s the only Beninese musician who’s internationally well known. The Gangbé Brass band are not going to change that (she’s easily-digested pop, suitable for dinner parties; they’re jumpy, loud, and probably best heard live) but good for them for trying, if only because it will mean that the musical life of an ignored country can now be associated with something other than a well-cropped, terribly fit woman in zebra leotards.
Gangbé draw inspiration from several different places. The hammering vigour of their drumming is pure African, and serves as a reminder that the Yoruba civilisations of Benin and the surrounding areas are an important source of vodou ritual. The melodies they play over the drumming sound sometimes like American marching bands, sometimes like swing or jazz, and sometimes like the Latin rhythms that have made a strong impact on popular African music in the past.
The idea of the brass ensemble itself goes back to the military bands that travelled abroad with the European powers in the days when France, Britain, Germany, Belgium, and Portugal were vying with one another to see how much of the planet they could stick flags into. (Queen Victoria won in the end, but the world’s tuba manufacturers have done quite nicely out of it as well.) The trumpets and trombones glide, the metal bell percussion darts, and the drums bear them up with an undercarriage of thunder.
The band members sing, too, in French and several indigenous languages, a call-and-response chant that often addresses the audience with moral lessons. “Peoples’ good deeds in life are always rewarded, their bad actions too. You can’t buy happiness or kindness at the market,” explain the English-language notes to one song, and, “Man’s abuse of power and greed increase the sorrow of orphans,” remark the notes to another.
One song, “Remember Fela”, is described as a tribute to “our spiritual musical father, Fela Anikulapokuti”. In hindsight it makes sense that Fela Kuti should have been one of their influences, since his native Nigeria is immediately next door to Benin — first nation on the right — but I wouldn’t have picked it if they hadn’t told me. They have saxophones in common, yes, but Gangbé’s sound is more joyous, more sprawling, and less bossy than his Afrobeat. Fela Kuti sounds like a single man giving a speech in front of a crowd but the Gangbé Brass Band sound like a group of men leading a parade down the road with coloured streamers flying over their heads and the sun shining. Balloons sail upward, the trumpets mambo together, the men sing, “A-fri-ca, vié!” and everyone is happy.
That openness, which much be an asset in their live shows, (and online reports, most of them reprinted from newspapers, confirm that the Gangbé Brass Band are a dynamic live act) also makes Whendo a shaggy album without a strong focus. It has memorable moments rather than memorable songs. The beginning of the first track is unexpectedly abrupt, and every time the CD reaches the end my brain is left hanging for a few moments in the silence afterwards, wondering, “Wait, is it over? Or are they just pausing?” This is an album that will be best appreciated by people who have seen the band live and can use the music to help them relive the evening; and heard by the rest of us as a promise of what we might enjoy if they ever came our way.