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Music Review: Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou – The Vodoun Effect: 1973-1975 Funk & Sato From Benin’s Obscure Labels

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I'm sure we've all seen or heard various documentaries about the history of popular music in North America that have traced the roots of jazz and blues music back to the tribal sounds of Africa.  The blues developed out of the songs, "hollers", that the slaves used to sing while working in the fields that were a mixture of old tribal rhythms and the Christian hymns that the slave owners forced down their chattel's throats in an attempt to pacify them. However, most of us are probably unfamiliar with how the music that developed in both North and South America returned to Africa to influence the popular music scene in various West African nations.

In the 1980s, thanks to Peter Gabriel's World Of Music and Dance (WOMAD) festival, African popular music started to come to the attention of European and North American audiences. Performers like King Sunny Ade from Nigeria exposed us to the previously unheard of genres high life and juju: guitar driven, high energy, and exuberant music that kept people on the dance floor for hours on end. However Nigeria was only the tip of a widespread pop music scene in Africa. Thinking that King Sunny Ade represented African pop music would have been as stupid as thinking a blues musician from Chicago represented all of North American pop music.

Benin lies on the West coast of Africa and butts up against Nigeria in the south, Niger in the east, and equally tiny Togo to the north. What distinguishes Benin from its neighbours is the fact that it happens to be home to Vodoun – or as we know it over here Voodoo. So it should be no surprise that the popular music of Benin draws heavily upon the rhythms of Vodoun rituals, but what is surprising is the other influences that have come into play. The Vodoun Effect: Funk & Sato From Benin's Obscure Labels 1973-1975 a recent release on the Analog Africa from Germany, that has collected together fourteen tracks by one of Benin's most popular bands, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou. Recorded in the 1970s on a variety of small independent labels, they show not only the Vodoun influence but how music from both South and North America found its way back across the Atlantic Ocean.
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According to the publicity material that came with the disc, in the late 19th century a group of freed slaves from Brazil returned to Benin and over the years their dances and songs were incorporated into Beninese ritual, and from there worked their way into the popular culture. In the 1960s and 1970s American soul and funk music started making its presence felt in Africa, and along with the sounds of pop music from neighbouring Nigeria were assimilated into the popular music scene in Benin.

When you listen to Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou you have a choice, you can either try and analyze the individual songs in an attempt to discern the particular influences that are present in each song, or you can just sit back and enjoy the ride. Of course there are times when you just can't help noticing obvious influences, especially when the songs are as radically different from track to track as they are on this disc. One moment you'll be listening to a rhythm is so hypnotic that you swear if it continued a second longer would have sent you off into a trance, while the next, you can't help feel like you're listening to 1970s era Santana the Latin groove becomes so strong.

Now a lot of these songs were recorded early in the band's career and you get the feeling in some instances that they are trying out a new sound. However, on some of the tracks, and these are the ones that are my favourites, they have started to synthesize the various influences into their own sound. While you can still hear the occasional distinctive trait: the staccato horn sound of funk, an underlying rhythm that sends a peculiar shiver up your spine, or an electric organ riff that sounds like it might have strolled over from "Black Magic Women" to sit in for the take, the band shows they weren't going to be content just being imitators of other people's sounds.

It's interesting to hear the difference between various tracks on the CD as they show the band's sound developing and becoming more sophisticated. On the first track, "Mi Homlan Dadale" they sound like any number of African pop bands, not even incorporating any of their own traditional rhythms into the music. By the sixth track, "Se Tche We Djo Mon", and the seventh track, "Dis Moi La Verite", you're hearing an amazing progression in their playing. The latter of the two is especially impressive, for you can hear the beginnings of a successful marriage between the hypnotic rhythms of Vodoun, the distinctive sound of a Latin melody, and the brassiness of American funk. It still sounds a little like three different styles of music are being played at once, but you can tell what the band is trying to accomplish, and it in no way diminishes the fact that the song is a hell of a lot of fun to listen too.

The only drawback to The Vodoun Effect is the sound quality on some of the tracks is not very good. This has nothing to do with the contemporary engineering, but with the fact that when the band originally recorded it was often with everybody piled into the studio gathered around two microphones. It's actually remarkable at how well balanced the sound is considering the size of the band and the number of instruments involved in making the recordings. The only real problem that crops up is distortion of the vocals and the horns, as they both occasionally sound like the levels were far too high when they were recorded.

This is a fascinating recording of some extraordinary music, by a group of highly skilled and dedicated musicians. We still know so little about African popular music over here in North America, that any recordings that shed light upon something that hasn't received wide spread exposure yet is interesting as well as important. It's also nice to know that Analog Germany is making plans to release more music by Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou from later in their career that should show the band's talent in a far better light. If they're this good raw, we're going to be in for a real treat when the next batch of recordings are released, the only pity is that it's taken so long for their music to find its way back over the ocean again.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
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