Interview with Orchestre Poly-Rythmo
The Orchestre Poly-Rythmo can best be described as musical godfathers of the West African nation of Benin, where successive generations of musicians have been inspired by the sounds of funk and vodoun (voodoo) music which first emerged from the homes of young men living in 1960s Cotonou, the economic capital of the country. West Africa during the sixties and seventies was a hotbed of music culture spurred on by newfound political independence and economic investment. Music from the West streamed into the homes of young Beninese like Vincent Ahehehinnou and Clémént Mélomé, two founding members of Poly-Rythmo who assembled their sound from disparate genres and local cultures. Vodoun rituals, funk breaks and Latin rhythms established the sound of a group which today attracts fans from outside of West Africa, regions like Europe and North America which are more recently discovering Benin’s musical history.
During the seventies, Poly-Rythmo became star musicians of a region learning to define itself culturally on its own terms. Working with small labels, the group recorded frequently on the cheap, pressing less than 500 records for each release. Most of the time, band members performed in bedrooms or living rooms packed with instruments, a Nagra reel-to-reel tape machine and just one or two microphones. They recorded in between the sounds of passing jetliners from nearby Cotonou Airport and played live shows which filled up venues to capacity. Their success reached several peaks during the seventies until a military coup by dictator Mathieu Kérékou ushered in over a decade of economic decline and political fallout. By the eighties, Benin was experiencing its worst growing pains as a young nation-state, and the prolific musical output so particular to the previous two decades had severely waned.
The all-powerful music of Poly-Rythmo pressed on through years of Benin’s recovery during the nineties and aughts until Elodie Maillot, a French journalist working in Benin, tracked down the band in 2007 and helped them arrange for their very first European tour. Reissues by British label Soundway Records and German label Analog Africa had already been kindling interest in the group among Western audiences, and the group’s newfound popularity culminated with a North American debut in 2010 when they performed at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York City. Forty years after its founding, the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo will return this year with an album of newly recorded songs, Cotonou Club. In this interview, lead vocalist/co-founder Vincent Ahehehinnou and Elodie Maillot, now the group’s manager, talk about Poly-Rythmo’s past and present.
EM: The full name of the band is “Le Tout Puissant Orchestre Poly-Rythmo.” How did this honorific title, the “all-powerful,” form around the group?
Vincent: At the time, we used to play a venue where all the people who loved music would come and dance until their shirts became wet with sweat. The people called us “le tout puissant” because there was a popular band called “Tout Puissant Orchestre Kinshasa” from Congo. They started calling us that, and then the journalists at the time started saying the same on the radio.
EM: Why were the sixties and seventies such a fertile period for the band and for music in Benin? How did that change under the new political regime?
Vincent: First of all, piracy was not a problem at that time. There were a lot of producers, and some people became producers just so they could record our tracks. Also, it wasn’t so expensive to cut a 7-inch record. We accepted a lot of work with producers without worrying where they were coming from. When Mathieu Kérékou came in with Marxism and Leninism, all the foreigners ran away and it was very bad for business. People didn’t have much money to buy records. In 1977, we went to Lagos and met an Italian guy who had left Benin because of the regime. He told us to be careful and that everything was going to collapse. The only thing left in Benin were the endless pictures of the president on T.V. and the radio. The president was the only thing to listen to.
EM: Did the band ever participate in political resistance against the regime?
Vincent: We were not politically involved in resistance. We even backed up the regime for awhile. Even though they never really rewarded us, some of the most memorable revolutionary songs came from Poly-Rythmo. That’s why we came to be called the “national orchestra” of the time.
EM: Besides preparing for the new record, what has the band been up to over the past year or so?
Vincent: In 2009, we did nine concerts in Europe. We’ve been performing for the European public as there’s good demand for us to play. The last year or so, we’ve also done a few shows in the United States and a few in Brazil.
EM: How was your first visit to the U.S.?
Vincent: For me, to be in the United States was a great surprise. Me being in the States even two or three years ago, I would have never thought of it. It was a great joy.
EM: How have things changed, if at all, since the band’s hiatus?
Vincent: It’s been 25 years since we last recorded an album. Over time, I’ve been a solo artist working on my own material. Since we’ve started recording again, nothing has changed and the spirit of the group remains the same. It was great to return to recording since we encountered so many peaks and lows during the sixties and seventies. The last big setback, we performed at a youth festival in Libya in 1982 where we had all of our equipment destroyed. We weren’t able to recover from that for a long time.
EM: Tell us a little about the decision to create the record with more traditional production methods.
Elodie: The idea was to remember the old time, so we decided to go to a studio hosted by people who collect analog equipment. We wanted to make sure we could record most of the musicians altogether, except, of course, the voice and horn sections and some of the percussion. It was kind of difficult for them to do voiceovers with the headphone on, because the “magic” of playing together wasn’t there, so we tried to keep them together as much as possible and keep the strength of the analog sound.
EM: Musician Angelique Kidjo is featured on a song, “Gbeti Madjro,” from the new record. How did these two generations of Beninese musicians come together to record a song?
Elodie: Angelique Kidjo started playing music in the backyards of some of the musicians of Poly-Rythmo, as close friends. She started learning from their music, and they were a source of inspiration for her. You’ll see, in the booklet of the record, old pictures of her wearing bell-bottom pants from the seventies. She was playing with Poly-Rythmo at that time. When I approached her about recording a track, I quickly asked her about “Gbeti Madjro.” She was already doing the lyrics, and it was the song which surrounded her childhood and teenage years, so the collaboration came very easily.
Le Tout Puissant Orchestre Poly-Rythmo will release Cotonou Club through Strut Records on April 12, 2011, in the United States. The album features 11 tracks, along with guest appearances by Angelique Kidjo, Fatoumata Diawara and Franz Ferdinand. It will be available in four formats: two-disc limited edition, single CD version, double LP gatefold and digital. The limited two-disc edition features an exclusive documentary film about their recent recording sessions and first-ever tour across Europe, the U.S. and Brazil. The bonus disc includes alternative and live recordings.