In September 2009, this legendary group from Benin returned over twenty years after breaking up, combining some original members with new faces, and played their first ever shows in Europe. Earlier this year, they released a brand new album, Cotonou Club, to generally positive reviews. Where once this outfit was largely unknown except to informed compilers of African music and to collectors, they are now a major name in the World music industry.
The re-release of this, their debut album, provides a timely reminder of the long history of hybrid music in Africa. As with the Soundway Nigerian compilations, this suggests that bands such as Tinariwen, whilst undoubtedly excellent, are hardly pioneering in their embrace of western rock music. There are wah wah guitars and emphatic electric pianos all over this 1973 recording. Indeed, with Benin being located geographically between Nigeria and Ghana, Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo not only looked to the west, but also absorbed a wide variety of the Afrobeat sounds of the time. Recent compilation African Scream Contest showed Benin to have been an overlooked centre for psychedelic funk and Afrobeat.
The band also demonstrates the difficulty in getting music recorded in much of Africa, a problem that continues today as evidenced by the recent documentary film about Staff Benda Bilili. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo De Cotonou finally became established in 1969, following the addition of singer Vincent Ahihehennou, but this debut album did not emerge for another four years, having been recorded twice due to technical problems with the original session. As a result, the group appears here as a very well rehearsed, experienced unit. This CD reissue includes previously unheard material and is a very valuable snapshot of a legendary band in their heyday.
The rhythmic vitality and sheer energy of these recordings is remarkable. As with Fela Kuti, the irresistible grooves seem to be as much about restraint as they are about relentless consistency. This is a very disciplined music, yet that discipline seems to be accepted more than willingly – and every repetition is delivered with the same extraordinary commitment and accuracy. The imaginatively titled La La La La is over twelve minutes long, but at no point does it sound tired or extraneous. It is simply a brilliantly constructed groove in superb, uninterrupted flow. The percussion section is meticulously integrated and the guitars sound clear and forceful.
Much of this music is difficult to describe in words because it is all about feeling and vibe. There can have been only minimal interference by engineers or producers in the studio. Instead, the band have been captured at their unedited, free wheeling best and the unmediated spirit of the music makes it easy to imagine how wonderful Orchestre Poly-Rythmo’s early live performances must have been.
Yet this is also great music for close listening. The sheer detail of it becomes crystal clear when heard on headphones. There is a strong Latin element to the percussion section, particularly on Egni Miton? Nin Mi Na Wa Gbin that once again demonstrates the strong intersection between African, Caribbean and South American musical cultures. This wonderful track almost sounds like a fusion between Cuban and proto-Jamaican dancehall styles. The group’s use of space, particularly in the placement of the bass line – is dramatic and effective.
This reissue seems particularly significant as a document of Vincent Ahehehinnou’s role in the band. He left the group in 1978, for reasons that still seem unclear, but prior to this he appears to have been their creative driving force. The inspired explorations contained here are all credited to him. His era of the orchestra clearly had a distinctive ambition and spirit.