This isn’t so much an album review as it is an unknown history of one of the most prolific big bands on the African continent.
On the coast of western Africa, obscured by two Anglophone countries with rich musical heritages and considerable financial support, lies the tiny republic of Benin. Amid a series of coup d’états and regime changes in the 1960s and ’70s, only one thing seemed to remain intact and recognizable during the decade – the Tout Puissant absurdly prolific Orchestre Poly-Rhthmo band.
This album, distributed by the international soul-funk gods of Soundway records, compiles a baker’s dozen of beautifully restored Poly-Rhthmo tracks, showcasing the band’s outrageous dexterity. The better word here is expertise. When Poly-Rhthmo switches from Beninese folk to hard Afrobeat or from highlife to salsa rhythms, it does it with commanding precision – a precision it has cultivated after more than 40 years of playing together with a staggering 50-LP history that has contributed to their demigod status in Benin. In addition to their proper records, the band was known to play backup on the majority of releases coming out of the country in the ’70s and ’80s. But despite this illustrious career – one that, amazingly, continues to this day (we’re talking 40-plus years here) – the band’s material is practically non-existent in the United States. Thankfully, this album changes all of that.
The first track, “Aihe Ni Kpe we,” is an epic slice of pulsating Afrobeat that indulges in jazzy interplay and a Cuban-style trumpet. Latin influences reappear several times on the album, most notably on “Gendamou Na Wili We Gnannin,” where salsa mixes with Congolese soukous. The word “soukous” is said to derive from the French verb to shake – a perfect descriptor for the group’s fusion of traditional African pop with Caribbean rumba.
The highlight of the album is a deceptive little pop number that conceals technical complexity and mastery under buoyant guitar and keyboard progressions. “Kokoriko” begins triumphantly with surging trumpet and step-stone xylophone before giving way to a flurry of congas, a jangling guitar and precipitating high-hat. The overall sound is so rich and nuanced it makes Graceland sound like nothing but Paul Simon and a two-string guitar. The song is essential road trip music for driving along the African coast – or, you know, anywhere.
With due respect to Paul Simon and the magnificent Okyerema Asante, Poly-Rhthmo’s own kit-master, Yehouessi Leopold, is unparalleled as the band’s rhythmic backbone. His beats are a cohesive force, instantly crossing over from jazz to straight funk at his command.
In its heyday in the late ’70s, the band was composed of 16 musicians, including three guitarists and a rotating cast of vocalists. Poly-Rhthmo’s music capitalizes on these individual parts, producing a resonant, full-bodied sound with no excess.
There are dozens of Poly-Rhthmo LPs in Cotonou record shops that will never make it to the United States, whether because of poor sound quality or simple inaccessibility.
It takes individual collectors and independent labels to scourge for these lost tapes. It takes a genuine will to want to share this music with the world.
To the people of Benin, these records were, and still are, daily pleasures. But the music and the band transcend the quotidian. Poly-Rhthmo is a testament to the suffocation and ultimate resilience of the Beninese people. It’s a testament to their versatility and adaptability. It’s also an incredible album.