Orchestre Poly

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo De Cotonou
The Vodoun Effect: Funk & Sata From Benin’s Obscure Labels 1973-1975
Analog Africa CD

The TP “tout puissant – all powerful” Orchestre Poly-Rythmo were one of the standouts on the excellent recent compilation African Scream Contest: Raw and Psychedelic Music from Benin and Togo 70s. A highly prolific and popular group operating in Cotonou, the nation’s seat of government, Poly-Rythmo’s heyday lasted through the 1970s and early 1980s, when two key members died. The group recorded huge amounts of material, some at the EMI studio in Lagos for the Albarika Store label (from which the recent Kings of Benin Urban Groove 1972-80 on Soundway was compiled, with more to be released on Analog Africa) and some for a local studio in Cotonou, for various local labels such as Echos Sonores du Dahomey, from which this record comes.

The sound is rough, vibrant and supremely funky. As the excellent sleevenotes explain, Poly-Rythmo’s sound was the result of a lot of creative copying, absorbing elements from: various traditional tribal musics including rhythms from West African vodoun, (which were dispersed across the Americas by the slave trade, much of which operated via Benin, then known as Dahomey); Afro-Cuban music, jazz and West African highlife, all of which also owe a debt to Vodoun; Congolese rhumba, a response to Afro-Cuban sounds; Nigerian juju and Fela Kuti’s Afro-beat; James Brown, who visited West Africa in the early 1970s, Ray Barretto style prog Latin and some psych rock jamming. The circulation of vodoun sounds back and forth between Africa and New World continues to this day – dynamic, appropriating whatever it encounters, and in the case of Poly-Rythmo, spitting it back out as modern dance music for weddings, radio and vinyl in response to local conditions. And there’s plenty that doesn’t fit into any tidy categorization of the sound – for example drummer Yehoussi Leopold who unleashes most unfunk-like snare volleys at key moments.

The sleevenotes also tell another remarkable story about the recording and production of the original Poly-Rhythmo disks that offer a reality check to any fantasies about the conditions in which this music was produced. We learn for example that the master tapes for most of these recordings were burned by the engineer’s father, after the engineer was put in jail and tortured, having recently taken a trip to Zaire to learn recording studio techniques. It’s a sobering story, but an important one – and it’s great to see such remarkable sounds being presented with such care and honesty.

Originally published in The Wire, 2008.

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