An inconsistent but frequently captivating return from the Benin legends.
Jon Lusk 2011-03-24
Based in Benin’s seaside city of Cotonou, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo are the most recent great West African band to make a post-millennial comeback. Following a path similar to that trodden by Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab and Mali’s Orchestre Super Rail Band, Poly-Rythmo have emerged from prolonged hibernation as a result of several re-issues and interest from abroad.
Orchestre Poly-Rythmo’s heyday was the 1970s, as their funk, soul and Afrobeat influences underline. However, a combination of economic and political factors, management issues, the death of key members and bad luck meant this once-prolific band effectively stopped recording in 1983, and only rarely performed afterwards. But since 2003, compilations on Popular African Music, Luaka Bop, Soundway and Analog Africa (including African Scream Contest and Legends of Benin) have given them much wider exposure. Consequently, they were invited to headline the 2010 African Soul Rebels tour and recorded this new album.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cotonou Club largely consists of re-recordings of vintage material; some of the original pieces can be heard on the albums mentioned above. Ne Te Faches Pas is a strong opener, which retains its rubbery disco bounce and slick brass riffs (strongly reminiscent of late-80s OK Jazz), but is less than half the length of the version on The Kings of Benin (2003). In contrast, Gbeti Madjro is only slightly shorter than the old version, and has a welcome contribution from Benin’s sole superstar, Angelique Kidjo, who apparently used to sing with them. Of the other highlights, their take on Gnonnas Pedro’s Afro-funk gem Von Vo Nono, and the Afrobeat shuffle of Holonon (complete with James Brown-style screams and Moise Loko’s wonderfully cheesy keyboards) are the most noteworthy.
Sadly, the rest is less consistent. Lion Is Burning was recorded with two members of celebrity fans Franz Ferdinand but is little more than a jam, and seems to borrow quite heavily from Hugh Masekela’s Don’t Go Lose It Baby. Jeremy Tordjman’s rather flowery sleeve notes outstay their welcome, making spurious mileage out of Poly-Rythmo’s purely musical connections with the vodoun religion, which members are keen to stress they don’t adhere to. And it’s a shame the band don’t stretch out a little more on some of the songs. Even so, if Cotonou Club isn’t quite what it might have been, fans should bear in mind that the reformed Orchestra Baobab didn’t really hit their stride until their second ‘comeback’ recording.