Orchestre Poly-rythmo - Back from extinction


Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou won’t be shedding any tears when Colonel Gaddafi eventually relinquishes his leadership of Libya. It was under Gaddafi’s regime in 1982 that this legendary band from Benin in West Africa had all their instruments and equipment destroyed by the Libyan authorities when they arrived to play at a festival in the Libyan capital, Tripoli.


Convinced that the band were trying to smuggle alcohol into a Muslim state, customs officials searched the band and their tour bus thoroughly, throwing instruments and amplifiers out of the windows, apparently expecting bottles or flasks to fall out of the cases. Nothing untoward was found – because nothing untoward was being carried into the country by these wary visitors – but the band were left without their means of making music and thus their living.


“It was the beginning of the end for us,” says the band’s charismatic singer and frontman, Vincent Ahehehinnou. “We did not have any equipment to play so even if we had a chance to find a show, we had to rent instruments. It was really hard, so little by little each of us had to find another little job to survive.”


As the economic situation in their own country began to worsen and the strictures enforced by the Marxist-Leninist regime that had come to power in Benin in the mid 1970s began to really take effect, survival became the prime motivation. Curfews saw the previously busy nightclubs closing down due to fears of arrest among the customers for talking politics, and even if they could have afforded them, there were no instruments for the musicians to buy.


It had all been very different when a bunch of schoolboys with a passion for music got together, originally calling themselves Suny Blacks Band, in Benin’s capital city in the late 1960s. Adding the influences of funk and soul, specifically James Brown, Roberta Flack and Wilson Pickett, and French pop singers Dalida and Johnny Hallyday to their native voodoo rhythms, they created a sound that quickly gained them local popularity.


“Voodoo rhythms are present in our everyday lives,” says Ahehehinnou. “You can’t walk down the street in Cotonou on Sundays or on certain holidays and not hear the drums and the voodoo bells. We are born with it and we grew up with this tradition. In Benin we had a specific rhythm called ‘aditivo’ that really resembles funk. We are definitely cousins with Afro-Americans. Many slaves left Benin’s coast for the New World, so there are of course some linkages. But we really imitated James Brown and particularly his cry of ‘Ohhhhhhh yeahhhhh Feeeeeeeeelllllll GOOOOOOOOD.’”


In the early days it was not unusual for Poly-Rythmo, as they were now known following a compromise reached with a music shop-sponsor, to play two different clubs in Cotonou on the same night. Then, as word of their feelgood blend of voices, brass section, guitar and percussion spread, they began touring nationally and then beyond Benin into Nigeria and Ghana, eventually registering a massive West African hit with the typically infectious Gbeti Madjro.


Throughout the 1970s, although they wouldn’t be known in here in the West until much more recently, Poly-Rythmo were among West Africa’s most popular, most prolific bands. But while the Libyan incident described earlier had a devastating effect, the band began having problems beforehand that led to what Ahehehinnou describes as its hibernation. They never formally broke up but they did cease recording due to their feeling of being exploited by their record producer, who appears to have placed them under dire threats. Ahehehinnou himself left the band – he can name the exact date, May 28, 1978 – because he feared for his life and seven of their original members have since passed away.


Still, their leader, Mélomé Clément, kept the Poly-Rythmo flame alive, drafting in young musicians for the band’s rare performances and welcoming Ahehehinnou back when, first, the German label Popular African Music released a compilation drawn from Poly Rythmo’s early recordings, Reminiscin’ in Tempo, in 2003 and then another company, Soundway issued a further compilation, subtitled The Kings of Benin 1972-80, prompting interest among African music fans in Europe in hearing the band perform live.


Elodie Maillot, a journalist with Radio France, contacted the band, interviewed them in Cotonou and convinced them to come to Europe to play and record, promising that they would be free of the “many crooks and people who think only about making money from artists” who make it difficult to live from music in Africa these days. Maillot then discovered that Glasgow art rockers Franz Ferdinand were big Orchestre Poly-Rythmo fans and acted as go-between, resulting in guitarist Nick McCarthy and drummer Paul Thomson joining the Benin band on their first European tour and featuring on Cotonou Club, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo’s first album in twenty years. Thomson will be also be performing a DJ set before Orchestre Poly-Rythmo take to the stage for their Glasgow debut at the Old Fruitmarket next week.


Having played a sold-out gig at the Barbican in London in 2009, as well as touring Europe and wowing audiences across the UK, including Edinburgh, when they shared the African Soul Rebels 2010 bill with Malian singer Oumou Sangare, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo are getting used to the idea of being an international attraction – something none of them ever dreamed would happen.


“Coming to Europe has been a real positive force for us,” says Vincent Ahehehinnou. “It was such an amazing thing for everyone but especially the older members of the group, because it symbolised a new beginning, a new life for us at the age when many think about retiring.”


From The Herald, June 23, 2011.


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