Some best-kept secrets are worth revealing, and the eternal youth of the legendary Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou is a particularly valuable hidden treasure. The West African band have now been playing their exquisite groove for over 40 years, a home-made voodoo funk, “Made in Bénin”, that conquered Nigeria, Togo, Niger, Angola and much of West Africa during their golden years. Back then, they were the famed residents of the Zenith club in Cotonou, they backed luminaries like Manu Dibango, Miriam Makeba and Gnonnas Pedro and they even opened for Fela and Africa 70. And they scored a pan-African hit with the breakneck funk anthem, ‘Gbeti Madjro’, which has now entered Benin folklore and remains the band’s essential calling card.
Throughout the ‘70s and, especially, during the last ten years as the market for African music connoisseurs, DJs and collectors has burgeoned, Poly-Rythmo has stunned all-comers with its raw Benin funk sound. Their thrillingly hectic music had remained largely hidden to audiences outside of Africa until 2007, when Miles Cleret’s Soundway label and Samy Ben Redjeb’s Frankfurt-based Analog Africa imprint began releasing painstakingly researched and lavishly packaged compilations of the band’s original music. Sampling from the prolific output of Poly-Rythmo and the their songs in various languages including Fon, Yoruba, Mina and French, Soundway’s The Kings Of Benin Urban Groove 1972-1980 and Analog Africa’s collections, The Vodoun Effect 1972-1975 (2008), Echos Hypnotiques (2009) and the acclaimed compilation African Scream Contest. The latter, bringing together 14 classics from Benin’s Golden Age, includes ‘Gbeti Madjro’, a track which created a revolution in Benin’s music scene and brought the band to the attention of Fela Kuti, culminating in an invitation to play at The Shrine, his afrobeat H.Q. in Lagos. Nowadays, it sounds as fresh as when it was written.
In September 2009, the reformed Poly-Rythmo performed in Europe for the first time, opening the famed Jazz A La Villette festival in Paris in September on an unforgettable night of African stars, sharing the bill with Seun Kuti and Amadou & Mariam. Their first European tour then stopped off at Paradiso in Amsterdam, the Barbican in London, Utrecht and Andverpen, ending at Marsatac in Marseille, where they collaborated with Paul Thomson and Nick McCarthy from Franz Ferdinand in a memorable show. Further memorable dates followed – WOMAD, Lincoln Center in New York and, in 2010, a tour to Brazil including Salvador da Bahia, where the similarities with Beninese culture blew the band away.
The “Papys Groovy”, as they are now known in Cotonou, have now been back on the road for two years and have most recently fulfilled another dream courtesy of Maillot, to embark on an all-new studio recording in 2011, their first for 25 years and their first recorded in a European studio. Recorded in Paris and produced by Sons d’Ailleurs ‘Cotonou Club’ finds the rejuvenated band on fine form and mixes new compositions with a handful of Poly-Rythmo classics including ‘Oce’ and super-hit ‘Gbeti Madjro’. Guests include Beninese superstar Angelique Kidjo, who sang regularly with the band as a youngster, and World Circuit’s Fatoumata Diawara who performed with them during the 2010 African Soul Rebels tour in the UK. Perhaps most intriguingly, following their Marseille appearance together, the album features a collaboration with Paul Thomson and Nick McCarthy from Franz Ferdinand. The track, ‘Lion Is Burning’, rides an incendiary 4×4 groove and takes Poly-Rythmo’s sound into completely new and exciting pastures.
Their dream realised, the world is now finally Poly-Rythmo’s oyster as more and more music fans worldwide discover the band’s unique, dynamite fusions. They may now be elders of the groove but they are, beyond all doubt, still as ‘Tout Puissant’ as ever.
“And if you’ve wondered what James Brown-inspired Seventies floor-fillers from the home of voodoo sound like, well, they’re not kidding about the ‘Poly-rythmo’ bit” – The Guardian
“At times the funk turns into hypnosis, and the rest is just unstoppable dance music” – New York Times
“Essential listening” – Gilles Peterson
“We are huge fans of this Beninese band. They have such a special sound, funky, soulful and so voodoo!” – Nick McCarthy, guitarist, Franz Ferdinand