Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou: Brings Dead Rhythms to Life

The liner notes for Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou's The Vodoun Effect claim that the Benin group is West Africa's best-kept secret. We'll go ahead and expand that secret to include the entire planet.

Poly-Rythmo, based in Cotonou, Benin's largest city, has been playing what most people would call African funk or Afrobeat since the late 1960s. The group's bulletproof sound is much more complex than these tidy little genres because in many of Poly-Rythmo's songs, the group incorporates Sato, a traditional rhythm borrowed from Vodoun, an annual ceremony in West Africa that honors the dead.

Limited to the obscurest of releases, often pressed by small Beninese labels in editions of 500, Poly-Rythmo had been an unknown until 2009 when Samy Ben Redjeb and his Analog Africa imprint expanded the Poly-Rythmo consciousness with the release of two volumes.

Redjeb transcends record-store digger. From 2005 to 2006, Redjeb traveled to homes and locked-up storage rooms in West Africa and excavated a majority of Poly-Rythmo's recorded output -- some 500 songs (yes, 500).

During the process, Redjeb got non-answer after non-answer -- think Franz Kafka's The Trial or Wizard of the Crow by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o for an idea of the runaround that Redjeb encountered -- before finally getting his hands on the neglected master tapes, seven-inch singles and quarter-inch reel-to-reel tapes, some of which were caked with dust or rendered unplayable.

The first volume, The Vodoun Effect: Funk and Sato from Benin's Obscure Labels (1972-1975), features the band recording one-take hits on the sly in private homes while the boss man for the Albarika Store label was on business in neighboring Nigeria.

The songs were often recorded with just one mike, which was located in front of lead singer Vincent Ahéhéhinnou as the multi-piece ensemble formed a half-circle behind. Before the release -- which features beautiful artwork and gobs of information, interviews and photographs, the case for all Analog Africa LPs and CDs -- only one of the 14 tracks had been distributed outside of Benin.

Volume two, Echos Hypnotiques: From the Vaults of Albarika Store (1969-1979), showcases 78 minutes of sonic riches recorded at the top-notch EMI studios in Lagos. Some listeners might hear Latin grooves, others Ghanaian/Nigerian highlife. All should hear innovation, even by 2012 standards.

The group remains active -- in 2010, Poly-Rythmo made its one and only North American appearance with shows in New York and Chicago.

In 2011, the London-based Strut released Cotonou Club, the group's first record of new material in 20 years. Ahéhéhinnou's voice is gruffer and the production quality is way slicker compared to those one-mike-and-a-semi-circle days, but it still swings.

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Steve Jansen is a contributing writer for the Houston Press.
Contact: Steve Jansen