Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou | The Vodoun Effect 1972-1975: Funk & Sato from Benin’s Obscure Labels
Most Likely To: be one of the only albums you hear that will protect you from the smallpox virus.
In the late 1960s, as traditional African culture rubbed up against an influx of Western influences, some of the most amazing modern musical forms birthed in the dance halls of West Africa. Rhythm and blues, soul, and funk elements electrified and popularized in the United States folded back upon themselves into their African origins. Afrobeat reigned supreme in Nigeria, a defiant and jubilant funk that mixed politics with traditional African poly-rhythm and harmonies. And in Benin, west of Nigeria, the birthplace of the Vodoun religion known to us westerners as Voodoo, a band called the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou was prolifically releasing records on fleeting local imprints. Their albums were steeped in religious ceremony and drenched in the sort of fuzzed-out funk that would have made Bootsy Collins shiver in his silvery trousers.
Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou has languished in obscurity outside of Benin for decades, but after Analog Africa label owner Samy Ben Redjeb took a trip to Benin to partake in some good old crate-digging, he came up with enough mind-blowing material to release the much heralded African Scream Contest compilation. He featured an Orchestre track on the comp and subsequent trips to Benin yielded 500 songs by the group. This record represents the first volume of said material to be released on Redjeb’s Analog Africa label, focusing on output from the early 70′s, when the group was recording in people’s homes with a two microphone set-up and limiting release to 1,000 copies or less. The sheer volume of material has allowed Redjeb to pluck 14 tracks that each stand on their own merit but when taken as a whole approach masterpiece.
Much like the dangerous political context of Fela Kuti’s music, it is interesting to know the back story of the Orchestre. The structure of their music is based on the “sato” and the “sakpata.” Sato is a traditional rhythm that is played on a large vertical drum in Benin during rituals to memorialize the dead. It is a sacred form. Sakpata is a rhythm dedicated to the Vodoun deity that protects people from diseases such as smallpox. The tracks presented on The Vodoun Effect show off these traditional rhythms magically, and the complex, poly-rhythmic forms are held aloft by thumping bass lines and crystalline guitar melodies, creating imminently accessible songs.
The meticulous rendering of James Brown theatrics, of Sly Stone’s impeccable vocal melodies, of Funkadelic’s playful psychedelia is evident with each of the Orchestre’s songs, and they deftly stir these elements into the traditional Vodoun rhythms. The confluence of traditional and modern is so adroitly handled that they are made seamless. It lays bare the continuum of African music from one continent to another and strips it of its linguistic and temporal differences.
Musical styles aside, the recording technique employed to capture these recordings is also surprisingly good. The sound quality is decent, with the brassy horns ringing clearly and the bass tones heavy and defined. The simple two-microphone set up used to record the band also lends the songs a sense of immediacy and urgency, and having a sense of the output of the Orchestre it is easy to imagine them racing through the streets of Cotonou, seemingly recording their raucous blend of Beninese funk for anyone who would set up a microphone and put the reels in motion.
Listen to “Mi Homlan Dadale” by Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou: