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Country Benin Genres afrobeat roots fusion Website Festival Sauti za Busara 2011
Le Tout Puissant Orchestre Poly Rythmo De Cotonou are one of the best kept secrets of West Africa.
“If death took bribes, I would pay a fortune to save my mother and father” sang Poly-Rythmo’s Antoine Dougbé thirty years ago. This legendary Benin band which has played with Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, Manu Dibango and Orquesta Aragon, has not managed to entirely cheat the grim reaper but their reputation is well and truly alive and kicking. Asking around at Cotonou’s nightclubs and bars, to the sound of Ivorian coupé décalé, the same comment over and over again is said: “Poly-Rythmo? What an incredible band!”
Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou was formed in 1969, anchoring their sound in the complex rhythms of the sacred Vodoun ceremonies of Benin, which have had far less exposure than the music of Cuban Santeria, Haitian Vodoun, or Brazilian Candomblé. They would put a Beninese spin on the hits of the day by Johnny Hallyday, Dalida or James Brown and created a repertoire which was as unique as it was explosive. "Drums, bells and horns are the fundamental instruments used during our traditional Vodoun rituals. We added guitars and organs - we modernised those ancient rhythms and combined them with Western genres that were in vogue at that time", explains Melome Clement, founder and bandleader. “We discovered JB’s funk on Voice of America” remembers Jean Luc Aplogan, the former Bénin Passion producer who now heads up the diversity commission at Radio France. “Poly-Rythmo were emblematic of that passion we had for funk and jerk, but their lyrics were all about life in Benin. They would sing about how to give bad luck the slip, about jealousy and love”.
Poly-Rythmo eventually became house-hold names in Benin and earned a huge reputation throughout West Africa, recording over 500 songs, including the massive hits ‘Gbeti Madjro’ and ‘Mille Fois Merci’. They first acquired electric instruments via their sponsor, local promoter, Crépin Wallace. “Once Wallace left to join his French wife in Paris, things started to get tougher. Our families put pressure on us to stop playing music”, says Clément. “Then with Pierre Loko (sax), Gustave Bentho (bass), Maximus Ajanohoun (guitar) and Eskill Lohento (singer) we became the resident band at the Canne à Sucre club. Cuicui André, the owner of the Poli Disco shop bought instruments for us. He wanted us to be called the Poly-Orchestra after his store. I chose Tout Puissant Orchestre Poly-Rythmo because we played every kind of rhythm and because we were electrified!” The band created an irresistible sound and frequently opened for Fela Kuti. “We supported Fela many times whenever he played in Cotonou, and we used to meet him at the EMI studio in Lagos where we did lots of recordings”, says Clément, “we loved his music”.
Despite their popularity (even star saxophonist Tidjani Koné left the Rail Band of Bamako to join them) Poly-Rythmo had always struggled to make a living from their music or buy their own instruments. “Various producers have bought amps and guitars for us, but some of them had to be sold. Other equipment got damaged when we were on the road, especially during our Libyan tour. The authorities there warned us not to bring alcoholic drinks into the country, but they suspected us of hiding bottles inside our instruments and threw everything onto the ground when we arrived. That was a really tough moment for the band.”
Right up until the 1980s the band was still successful and touring in Niger, Togo, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Angola and Côte d’Ivoire. But with political upheavals in Benin, increasing financial pressures, and the deaths of guitarist Bernard ‘Papillon’ Zoundegnon and vocalist Yehoussi Leopold, Poly-Rythmo seemed destined to ease gently into musical history. However, deep in the heart of Cotonou, a core of original band-members were still playing that transcendent mix of heavy funk and Benin psych.
With the rising interest in vintage grooves fuelled by labels such as Soundway and Analog Africa the timing is just right. Forty years since their beginnings, the group is ready for their debut European tour, (and a visit to Zanzibar along the way). “To be honest, we’d had so many broken promises down the years that we didn’t believe this would happen!” says singer Vincent Ahehehinnou, one of the defining voices of the original line-up. “But now we’ve finally got our passports and visas in our hands I think this is going to be one of the best times in Poly-Rythmo’s history – a surprise renaissance!”
Some text taken from original article Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou by Gbeti Madjro (MONDOMIX)