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Transcender Weekender



Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou
Gnawa Home Songs

Barbican Hall

Sept 27, 09









A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


The incredibly upbeat, seriously funky Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou of Benin, originally formed in 1969 and still headed by original founding sixty-four year old band-leader, Mélomé Clément (albeit with some new, younger members) really wowed the crowd in the Barbican Hall during the course of what was, incredibly, their first ever concert in the UK. This notable, eleven piece, dance inspiring band was more than ably assisted by their opening group - Gnawa Home Songs of Morocco, who also drew a fair share of cheers during their warm up set of  intricate Tamesloht Blues.

For me, and judging by the hip and shoulder shaking people all around me, many other audience members, Afro-beat is where it’s at, and when combined with JB funk, that’s James Brown to those unhip to the groove, whose African tour inspired many bands across that continent, soul and some inter-textual psychedelic guitar for good measure, the results, as demonstrated by Poly Rythomo are irresistibly infectious.

But before I get further into Poly Rythomo’s grooves, let me touch base with the entrancing and enjoyable Gnawa Home Songs of Morocco. Known for their rendering of traditional Gnawa music, often used for religious or healing purposes, this animated band of seven, minus two members who’d failed to get travelling papers, created an amazingly wide range of sounds with small castanet like instruments called quraqueb, while Hassan Boussou sang and played the stringed instrument, guimbri with great skill and enthusiasm, intermittently, along with his fellow musician/dancers, imbuing their music with a sense of mystery, bordering on mysticism, appropriate in light of the Barbican’s title for this double-bill and Sept. 30th’s Rango performance, ‘Transcender Weekender’.

Both shows in the series were said to draw on elements of the voodoo tradition and tonight’s performances reflected that theme. As the show’s announcer pointed out, ‘The Barbican is now the Voodoo capital’ of London, and rightfully, proud to be referred to thusly, especially given the calibre and rarity of the shows on offer. That said, it must be added that ‘vodun’ officially became known as ‘voodoo’ once it had undergone a new transformation in that gumbo pot of cultures, New Orleans.

Any misgivings Orchestre Poly Rythmo’s bandleader and sax player Mélomé Clément may have had at the opening of his group’s set were quickly quelled by the audible and visible support of the Sunday night crowd who, over the course of their performance sprang to their feet in ever increasing numbers, gyrating and cheering in the aisles, bringing back fond memories of our 1998 audience with the late, great Godfather of Soul from our seats in row two of the very same hall. Back then, we’d looked behind us to witness what seemed like the entire audience frantically getting down from floor to ceiling and at times, this auspicious occasion threatened to offer comparatively funky views to that one.

Although the music of Poly Rythmo was relatively unknown to me before I indulged in some very enlightening and entertaining research prior to attending this concert, I already consider myself a fan of the group. However, in light of their massive contribution to Africa’s impressive musical history via a staggering 500 recordings, and their long standing popularity in Benin, I’d better change that moniker to devotee, as even attempting to catch up with the group’s massive outpourings would be a challenge to say the least, though sadly, many of their more definitive recordings might not be readily available.

Another of the many distinctive things about this group is that they sing in two languages – Yoruba and Fon, drawing heavily on vodun or voodoo rhythms in the process. Their music has often been described as ‘trance like’ and it’s a matter of choice which sounds you plug into when listening to them, or whether you’d just prefer to let go and allow their heady musical mix to wash over you, with its distinctive blend of guitars, sax, trumpet, keyboard, drums both hand played and beaten and assorted percussive shakers.

The group’s lone hit, ‘Gbeti Madjro’, was met with screams of delight by some in the crowd, as were other infectiously rhythmic and multi-layered numbers and overall, the group’s masterful set drew an abnormally animated response for a Sunday night London crowd. That said, in hindsight, it would be neigh on impossible to cite just one track as the definitive stunner, as each caused so much unmitigated joy in myself and my fellow dancers that they immediately caused one to lose sight of the last glowing gem, inspiring the need for memory jolting and savouring of multiple tracks via album purchase ASAP.

In actual fact, we’ll soon be able to own not one, but two albums by these recently unearthed master musicians, thanks to their aptly named debut LP The Vodoun Effect of ‘Funk & Sato from Benin’s Obscure Labels, 1973 – 1975) and the exciting news that a second volume is soon to follow. Hopefully belatedly catching up with Orchestre Poly Rhythmo de Cotonou won’t be so difficult a task after all.

Despite the fact that Orchestre Poly Rythmo was a hugely popular band in many African countries and played with and were lauded by the likes of venerable Nigerian musician/activist Fela Kuti and Manu Dibango, incredibly, they remained a relative secret for many years until French radio journalist Elodie Maillot got curious after hearing one of their tracks on the radio during a trip to Benin in 2007. Not only was Maillot amazed to discover that the band was still together after 40 years, but that they would be playing the very next day in the city of Abomey before a ‘National Day’ crowd of 50,000 people. Malliot quickly made some recordings and interviewed the group for a radio programme about them, though at the time she had no way of paying for their services. In exchange, Poly Rythmo wisely asked her to enable their dream of touring Europe, which, after two years spent acquiring instruments, securing gigs and obtaining visas, has at last, become a reality. Maillot, a radio journalist, rather than band manager stated, “They claimed they put a vodun spell on me,’ so it’s not entirely my doing. I feel the power is coming from somewhere else.’

Now that I’ve seen them, I know what she means.







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