Séance of the ancient and urban, conjured by a spidery, hypnotic rhythm derived from spirit possession ceremonies, the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou owes its black magic to the Vodoun effect. That boom bo-bo-bo boom doesn’t so much move you as carry you.
Originating from Benin, Africa, the birthplace of Vodoun (a polytheistic religion of some 250 divinities), this big band ensemble modernized the percussive mysticism of traditional voodoo rituals in the early 1970s with fluttering guitars and organ grooves. As Japanese visionaries like Flower Travellin’ Band mirrored the West’s amplified awakening during the first psychedelic era, the Orchestre’s bitches brew melded James Brown’s star-time soul, the dark ecstasy of the Doors and Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain alongside Nigerian highlife, Afro-Cuban jazz and indigenous folk idioms.
While the shadow of Afrobeat trailblazer Fela Kuti certainly looms large over the Orchestre, what separates the Black President from the Kings of Benin, as the two camps were known respectively, is the latter’s alchemic eclecticism.
Formed as a trio in 1964 before aligning with Sunny Black’s Band and coming into its own in the coastal town of Cotonou four years later, the prolific Orchestre Poly-Rythmo put out more than 50 LPs and twice as many singles before disbanding in 1982.
A household name in its native land, the ensemble also backed marquee touring acts Manu Dibango and Bella Bellow. Poly-Rythmo was even anointed the national orchestra in the mid-1970s.
Geographical limitations can’t be overstated in their case. The Republic of Benin is dwarfed on the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa in size and stature by Nigeria and Ghana, making it difficult for records, most of which were pressed in limited quantities, to extend beyond Benin’s borders. Factor in political unrest, strict curfews and ripple effects from the Biafran War, and the existence of any recordings at all seems miraculous.
Three decades after the fact, the band’s material is finally surfacing stateside thanks to a wave of recent compilations, sparked by Popular African Music’s rare 2003 collection, Reminiscin’ in Tempo, which alternately spotlights the Orchestre’s Congolese and Cuban influences. Two new anthologies from Germany’s Analog Africa further illuminate Poly-Rythmo’s breadth and communal exaltation.
First and foremost, the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo was a quintessential house band, maintaining a residency at its Cotonou club, the Zenith, and adapting styles to suit its patrons. For such purposes, the ensemble utilized four distinct singers – soul shouter Vincent Ahehehinnou, founder and saxophonist Melome Clement, drummer Amenoudji Joseph “Vicky” for traditional songs in Mina (a language native to the border of Togo) and Lohento Eskill, who specialized in French and Fon material – all of whom had a hand in the compositional process.
Culled from 200 home recordings, last year’s The Vodoun Effect: Funk and Sato From Benin’s Obscure Label displays the Orchestre at its most raw and unhinged. With simmering Afro-Cuban psychedelia (“Assibavi”), frenetic hard funk (“Se Tche We Djo Mon”) and ceremonial incantations (“Mawa Mon Nou Mio”), it blurs distinctions between such genres in a delirious organ haze. The entrancing Sakpata rhythms of “Mi Ni Non Kpo,” derived from Vodoun ceremonies to prevent smallpox, gather strength in elliptical syncopation – Bentho Gustave’s thick bass, the washboard guitar of Papillon and Amenoudji Joseph’s percussion – a trinity of sound that defines the band’s most bewitching material.
These mid-fi selections are a bit rough around the edges, an unavoidable byproduct of the recording conditions: live to a reel-to-reel recorder, with the singer squarely in front of a lone microphone and the remaining band members forming a half-circle around him. That grit also gives The Vodoun Effect its warmth and charm. In fact, the entire procession makes contemporaries – on the Analog Africa label’s previous compilation, African Scream Contest, and the gold rush of Nigerian nuggets excavated in recent years – sound tame by comparison.
By contrast, Orchestre’s recent Echos Hypnotiques, Volume 2 was recorded at the EMI studio in nearby Lagos, the same facility used by Fela Kuti. Crisp and professional, this hour-plus collection represents the Orchestre’s manifesto, topping even the essential 2005 compilation, The Kings of Benin Urban Groove 1972-80.
The spacious, unfurling Afrobeat of “Mede Ma Gnin Messe” could be sequenced onto Fela’s career-spanning The Best of the Black President, much like the Sato-jazz of “Agnon Dekpe” to Miles Davis’ Dark Magus, while “Malin Kpon O” emulates the smoothness of Motown soul. The music sounds both foreign and familiar, haunted yet festive, and perhaps most impressively, always bears the distinct stamp of the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou, gradually pulling the listener under its exotic spell like quicksand.
“Vodoun rhythms were strongly present in our day-to-day lives, especially on the outskirts of the main cities, and in villages, where you can hear those rhythms everywhere,” recounts bandleader Melome Clement in the extensive liner notes to Volume Two. “They were performed for all kinds of occasions: weddings, burial ceremonies, circumcisions, you name it.
“So it’s in our blood.”
A version of this story appeared originally in the Austin Chronicle.