Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou
Imagine no one had ever heard of James Brown outside of the American South. Or that the only place people listened to Fela Kuti was in Lagos.
That’s the story of Benin’s Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou, a group born during the West African advent of funk and soul in the 1960s and 70s. Though legendary back in the day and long sought after by crate diggers and vintage African pop fans in the West, the band had never played outside of Africa until 2009. Even at home, their music had been mothballed in favor of DJs, MP3s, and the frenetic beats of electro-urban dance crazes.
Now, thanks to a serendipitous friendship cemented by a reel-to-reel recorder, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo rides again, touring the U.S. this summer with their signature mix of dancefloor-packing funk and compelling, interlocking brass, guitars, and vocal lines. Drawing on the spirit and rhythms of vodoun, as well as a cosmopolitan ear for perfect grooves, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo bring together vintage vibes and a fresh, locally forged sound, evolved over years of soulful songwriting and performing.
On this U.S. tour, Poly-Rythmo will hit cities like Boston, Chicago, DC, and Minneapolis in July 2012, including stops at NYC’s SummerStage and the Montreal Jazz Festival.
Some have called their recent international splash a revival, but Orchestre Poly-Rythmo have been kicking out the well-crafted, West African jams for more than forty years, one of the oldest African ensembles still rocking. They hung with Fela Kuti, played with Miriam Makeba, and recorded hundreds of songs, like their quicksilver hit, “Gbeti Madjro.”
But for reasons personal, political, and cultural, they then fell into obscurity. The 1980s brought both economic difficulties and political restrictions to Benin, leaving the band respected but hungry. Members drifted into different lines of work, as the gigs for bands like OPR dried up. “Music filled us, but it didn’t feed us,” lead vocalist Vincent Ahehehinnou recalled to Time.
Their music—highlighted beautifully on their first album Club Cotonou (Sons d'ailleurs, 2011)—begs the question why. With a history that reflects the midcentury exuberance of African independence and the worldwide revelation of Afrobeat and African funk, this ten-member group has transformed the reverberations caused by artists like James Brown and incorporated potent local elements to create precise, high-powered songs.
Fast-forward several decades, when the band was doggedly tracked down by French journalist and future producer Elodie Maillot. Maillot had traveled across the African continent, faithful Nagra reel-to-reel recorder in tow, taping musicians from Mauritania to Haiti. She heard rumors that the band was still active, but the few live opportunities meant they almost never played.
“No one believed they were still around,” Maillot recounts, “Even Angelique Kidjo didn’t believe it. She swore she would be on the album if they could record again. She had learned music in their backyard.” Undaunted, Maillot caught the group at a rare gig in a remote city. She and the band began talking, and bonded over her Nagra, which the OPR musicians fondly remembered borrowing from Benin’s national radio to make their many recordings during their heyday. It was the start of an unexpected, profound friendship and collaboration.
Urged by the band to help them, Maillot did more than interview them. She went to stunning lengths to produce performances in Europe, at the clubs they had played around Africa, and, most challenging, at home in Benin—right down to building stages and wooing local officials to turn on the electricity. She turned producer and helped the group put together its first album in twenty years, using the Nagra to record intimate performances in the guitarist’s home. (Some of these moments were woven into tracks like “Oce,” adding to the warm, vintage feel.)
Maillot plays some of the tapes for world music labels, and the response was so strong, she resolved to record a studio album. To do it, she found an analog studio in the upscale Le Marais section of Paris. Bringing in die-hard fans from Franz Ferdinand (Paul Thompson and Nick Mccarthy helped craft “Lion is Burning”), as well as some of Africa’s best-loved vocalists (Fatoumata Diawara and Angelique Kidjo, who made good on her promise), Maillot and the band channeled the group’s long-standing spirit and sound.
“Imagine a big tribe of guys with tattoos, and all these musicians from Benin just discovering Paris,” Maillot smiles. “They stayed together for four or five days and wrote ‘Lion is Buring’ together. It’s not like I sent some tracks. Made in the same place. It was a real collaborative process. Nick and Paul were big fans, and they were very shy.”
Behind the band’s recently restored vibrant, fresh energy lie intense roots. Representing eight of Benin’s dozen ethnic groups, the members of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo draw on the languages, sounds, faiths, and beats of their backgrounds, while speaking the international language of funk and soul. A crucial force in OPR’s music, the animist spiritual traditions of vodoun and their rhythms power much of the band’s sound. “All African tradition is based in vodoun,” Ahehehinnou told UK magazine Songlines in a recent interview. “Every god has its own rhythm and it’s a huge legacy of music.”
Songs like “Oce” use these traditional means to make utterly contemporary statements. The song asks the vodoun deity why there is so much injustice in the world. “Even though we love these gods, we wonder why there are so many problems,” Ahehehinnou explained to British journalist Simon Broughton. “Maybe one day, we’ll have an answer.”
“We have hope for the future,” says vocalist and sax player Mélomé. “And if it happens, it’s not an accident.” It’s just deserts, after years of hard work, lean times, and powerful funk.