After years of lighting up the night, Benin's oldest big band lets the sunshine in.
Le Tout-Puissant Orchestre Poly-Rythmo spent the better part of the 1970s putting out the smokiest nightclub jams in all of West Africa, full of fast beats and beautiful, dirty funk. In 2011, Cotonou Club proved that the group could still get down. Five years later, we have Madjafalao, a smooth album with a more mellow groove, a finely aged wine with less bite than previous releases, but more finesse than ever. Le Tout-Puissant Orchestre has worked hard to get on top, and Madjafalao is a gentle, well-deserved ride for Africa's oldest active orchestra.
Warmth is key to the comforting mix of styles and sounds on Madjafalao, an element that makes everything come together in a delicious, hearty stew for the soul. Nothing is ever too harsh or too modern, and an analog feel permeates the entire record (which is, fittingly, available on vinyl as well as CD). The title track opens up the album with a vivid array of brass and a call-and-response chorus, a beach-ready take on highlife ready for a tropical vacation. It's a feel-good start to a feel-good album, one that proceeds to draw on Afrobeat, rumba, funk, and everything in between -- the polyrhythmic quality referenced in the group's full name.
Steady midtempo beats run strong on each song; nothing gets too fast or furious, and that gives all the members of the group ample chance to show off their formidable skills. On “Africa”, these skills are at their peak, as is the orchestra's versatility. Modern Afrobeat drums lead the way as traditional Beninese percussion falls perfectly in step, and effortless guitars recapture that vital energy that was key to Le Tout-Puissant Orchestre in its youth and has kept it exciting until now.
That particular cool vibe of decades past is only a tiny piece of this new record, though, and comparing Madjafalao to the orchestra's earlier recordings is perplexing. Madjafalao is sunny and well-rounded, lacking the sensual mystique and sharp cutting edge that used to echo through the Vodou ritual-influenced sounds of 1970s-era singles like “Gbeti Ma Djro” and “Ako Ba Ho”. Madjafalao is a different creature entirely, a safe and lofty pedestal on which Vincent Ahéhéhinnou can let loose his incomparable vocals with a sweet vulnerability and pure expression alongside his faithful bandmates. Together, they make sounds both earthen and angelic on Madjafalao, and while the funk may burn slower, the passion is wholly uncompromised. That, in the end, is the most important thing: regardless of changes, regardless of how time has shaped and softened the group, this is a soulful mélange of the band's decades-long musical experience, and each member pours out their whole heart right into it. This is good music, no qualifications necessary.
In French, Tout-Puissant means "all-powerful", and if there's one thing Le Orchestre is in any incarnation, it's that: bright, unstoppable, full of heat and love. After years of lighting up the night, on Madjafalao, the group finally lets the sunshine in, and it shines brightly on ten healing tracks that encompass vast swaths of West Africa and serve as a good reminder that there is still sweetness in the world today.