Superb article from the blog :
By Banning Eyre
Lincoln Center Festival, July 11, 2010
Recent years have seen a blossoming interest in the funky sounds of West African dance bands of the ‘70s. Compilations on Luaka Bop, Sound Way, Analog Africa and other labels have showcased these bands as the roots of afrobeat, as African psychedelic music, as quirky and irresistible African reflections of American funk. The depth of this well has become apparent as more and more such releases continue to appear. Sound Way’s double CD The World Ends: Afro Rock and Psychedelia in 1970s Nigeria is just the latest example—and, by the way, it delivers! We’ve been lucky to hear these emanations of a bygone moment, courtesy of diligent collectors of vintage vinyl and these great reissue labels. What we did not imagine is that any of the actual bands still existed and were able to deliver the deep, rootsy, playful, brash, and brilliant sounds of early Afro-funk. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo’s US debut at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College—courtesy of the Lincoln Center Festival—was a revelation. Not only does this legendary band from Cotonou, Benin, still exist. They sound sharp and polished, and scarcely diminished by the three decades that have passed since their heyday.
The band took the stage, most of them playing percussion instruments, and singing a melody from Benin’s sacred vodun tradition, and for the next 90 minutes, they moved through a delicious repertoire of “Voodoo Funk”—that’s religious melodies and rhythms married to James Brown-era funk—proto-Afrobeat, and African salsa. The ten men on stage were not all there when Orchestre Poly-Rythmo first formed in 1968, but some were, including lead vocalist Vincent Ahéhéhinnou and the band’s founder Mélome Clément, a jolly bear of a man who alternated between tenor sax and vocals. The three-man brass section was strong and tight, and packed sensuous dance moves and the odd elegant solo. The singers worked solo and joined forces on harmony arrangements, especially affecting on the vodun-derived melodies. The best of those songs sounded like melodious Yoruba chants out of Nigerian juju music set to funk or afrobeat grooves worthy of Fela’s Africa 70 band. This is a sound with tremendous natural appeal to American ears—as the success of those CD reissues attest. And now we know there’s at least one band around that can stage it with powerful authenticity.
In Poly-Rythmo’s New York show, the Afro-Latin repertoire was more familiar sounding, and less striking, though these guys certainly carry it off with verve, especially when keyboardist Moise Loko launches into a bucking, polyrhythmic solo using a vintage, analog electric piano sound. Loko’s keyboard work was tasteful and pungent throughout, completely avoiding the tackiness that marred too many African dance bands of the 80s. Guitarist Fifi LePrince also showed pluck on solos that approached the psychedelic imagination and grandeur heard on the Analog Africa, and other, reissues. Those recordings are drawn from Orchestre Poly-Rythmo’s heyday—1970-83. LePrince now plays a Stratocaster through a Roland JC120 Jazz Chorus amplifier—the favored amp among today’s African guitarists. Frankly, he would come still closer to the magic of those old recordings if he bucked the Roland trend and went for the fatter, edgier sound a Fender or other vintage amp would give him. But he certainly has the chops and ideas to deliver on the promise of African psychedelia.
When Poly-Rythmo returns, they might also consider bringing one more percussionist to enhance the vodun roots element of their sound. This is their strongest suit and a clear differentiator from all the other retro-Afropop bands who’ve made the circuit over the years. The band’s first US visit includes only this New York show and a free show in Millennium Park, Chicago, on Thursday, July 15. But given that the NY show was sold out, with the audience on their feet and exultant, and given that the New York Times’s Jon Pareles puts Poly-Rythmo on a short list of the “world’s greatest funk bands” in his rave review, there’s little doubt that they will be back.
After the show, Afropop snagged a brief interview with Vincent Ahéhéhinnou and Mélome Clément. They told us that the band is recording a CD of new compositions for release in September, 2010. They also told us a bit of their remarkable history. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo evolved out of an earlier band called Sunny Blacks. Initially, there was a dispute over what to call the new band. Poly-Disco had a modern commercial ring at the time, and the Sunny Blacks contingent favored Poly-Orchestre. Ahéhéhinnou’s preferred title, Poly-Rythmo, won out, signalling the band’s intention to draw not just on popular commercial beats—rock, funk, and salsa—but on Benin’s rich folkore.
The band was doing well interpreting hits by Otis Redding, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, The Beatles, Arthur Conley, Sam and Dave, and so on. (Incidentally, Beninois heard many of these artists on broadcasts by the Voice of America, hosted by Roger Guy Folly, and a young fellow named Georges Collinet, now the host of Afropop Worldwide.) But Ahéhéhinnou felt that Poly-Rythmos needed to move beyond this sort of imitation. “We were born in a country where at one time there was no Christianity,” he recalled. “It was the culture of animists. Vodun. Our parents loved this. Our fathers were born in this. We ourselves were born in this. We were cradled in the vodun religion. So as we had decided to create new works, we went right to the basis of this vodun music, and the instruments it uses. It has very, very beautiful melodies. It is very beautiful music. So we started using the bells, the tam-tam, and the two most popular rhythms, the sato and the sakpata.”
Sato features a very large drum, played only at occasions of great moment, such as the death of a king. When it sounds, exuberant dancing invariably ensues. Sakpata refers to the “god of the earth,” and its rhythms and melodies provides another rich source. Ahéhéhinnou had to fight to get Clément’s cranking, vodun-derived song “Gbeti Majro” on the band’s first 45 RPM single. It was the B-side of a salsa-tinged number called “Angélina et Tombola.” With its racing rhythm and James Brown screams, “Gbeti Majro” was full-force voodoo funk, and when it came out in 1969, “Pow!” recalled Ahéhéhinnou. “‘Gbeti Majro’ caught on. Like a fire. And it was a big surprise. It went all around the world, this song. This was the song that made Poly-Rythmo known on the outside. It's the song that caused us to play outside of Benin. We went all over Africa with that song.”
You can hear “Gbeti Majro” on Analog Africa’s African Scream Contest compilation. Ahéhéhinnou described the song’s tough message: “In our African culture, people voluntarily do bad things. When people see that you are succeeding in life, they create problems for you. They create problems of the sort where your wife leaves you. When the wife leaves, they try to kill the children. Then when you are in grief, you find that they are the ones sitting next to you. You complain, ‘I don't understand. Why has this happened?’ And they say, ‘That's life.’ And it is the very person who has created your problems, who brings you every possible bad, and sends every bad person your way, and then when he sees your suffering, he says, ‘Well, that's life. There's nothing you can do.’ So the composer says, ‘Why is it only in my country that people live this way? Why not in France? Why not United States? Why don't people know this kind of life, and it is only among us. It's the people themselves who are bad.’ That's what the song says.”
“I wrote ‘Gbeti Majro,’” said Mélome Clément, “and ‘Gbeti Majro’ was played in America, but I never imagined I would come here. Never.” Way back in grade school, Clément adopted the nick name “The American” after studying American history in class. The name stuck, but as he and Ahéhéhinnou said repeatedly, they never imagined they would ever perform in the US. Poly-Rythmo’s current good fortune grew out of the passion of a Radio France International journalist named Élodie Maillot, who discovered and fell in love with the band’s old vinyl recordings in the RFI library. She travelled to Benin to hear and interview the band, was amazed to find them still intact and sounding so good. Maillot returned to Europe to discover that Poly-Rythmo had records out on Analog Africa. She had at first resisted the band’s suggestion that she help “defend our name” in Europe. But once Maillot discovered that they had good, well packaged recordings newly on the market, she arranged for Poly-Rythmo to play Paris in September, 2009. Now, she’s the band’s manager.
Ahéhéhinnou said, “Today, we have the conviction that what we've been doing really is good. But we didn't know that in the beginning. We were just making the music we love. We were just doing what our passion led us to. We were young friends sharing what we loved, the music. That was it. We are very happy to know that we were not just making music for nothing.”
Far from it. If you’re anywhere near Chicago, get yourself to Millennium park on July 15. Otherwise, pick up Poly-Rythmo’s reissue CDs and get ready. A year from now, this band is going to take America by storm. You heard it here first…
First published: www.afropop.org