Orchestra Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou - "Assibavi" (The Vodoun Effect 1972-1975: Funk & Sato from Benin's Obscure Labels)
Formed in 1966 and still sort-of existent today (at least they got together for a scene in Raymond Dumas’s forthcoming The Legends Of Afrobeat movie), the Orchestra Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou enjoyed a long run as Benin’s top band. Analog Africa boss Samy Ben Redjeb, who curated this compilation from hundreds of records he secured during years of crate digging in West Africa, overstates things a bit when he calls them the best-kept secret from that neck of the woods. After all, they have already been the subject of two (currently out-of-print) collections on Soundway and Popular African Music; they’re the backbone of the recent African Scream Contest collection, also on Analog Africa; and their convulsive yet intricate “Minsato Le, Mi Dayihome” proved hard to top a few years back as the opener to Luaka Bop’s World Psychedelic Classics 3: Love’s A Real Thing. But if they’re not total unknowns, their reputation outside their homeland falls far short of the quality of their music, a fantastic synthesis of funk (known locally as jerk), Latin, rock, and various African styles with homegrown Sato and Sakpata rhythms derived from Vodoun ceremonies. Despite focusing on a single band, this set is as satisfying as any of the fantastic multi-band collections of ‘70s groove music from Nigeria, Ghana, Benin and Togo that have come out in recent years. And the circumstances under which The Vodoun Effect‘s contents were made and marketed could speak right to the heart of the rare groove shoppers and indie-rock nerds that comprise the record’s target audience here.
Redjeb’s projected two-volume excavation of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo’s ’70s legacy splits into two parts, a forthcoming album that covers their more popular recordings for the Albarika Store label and this one, which cherry-picks their recordings for various fan-run independent labels that the band made for extra cash while Albarika Store’s boss was out of town. Most of The Vodoun Effect’s tracks were pressed in editions of a few hundred at the dawn of Benin’s vinyl age, and they were generally recorded live with one or two microphones and a Nagra reel-to-reel tape machine in someone’s living room or backyard, often in between jet flyovers in the neighborhood near Cotonou’s airport. Such rough conditions didn’t result in unlistenable recordings; the set-up is perfect for capturing the essential tightness and incendiary chemistry of a well-drilled working band quite capable of balancing its own sound in front of the mic. Guitar, percussion, voices and horns weave in and out of the mix as they might have at a gig, with lead singers Lohento Eskill, Vincent Ahehehinnou and Amenoudji Vicky right up front delivering the insistent and quite indelible tunes, and Bernard “Papillon” Zoundegnon’s echo-drenched guitar and organ solos bequeathing the proceedings a marvelously trippy aura. The horns suffer most, often overloading the mics, but if you can deal with the distorted horn charts on you average Ethiopiques release, you’ll be fine with the in-the-red sax and trumpet punctuation on The Vodoun Effect.
Ironically, another hook that might reel in Western listeners is the whiff of failure that swirls around these tracks. They weren’t hits, and Redjeb admits in the liner notes that Eskill and band founder Melome Clement not only couldn’t remember some of these tunes when he played them back, they believed his compilations would flop in the contemporary Beninese marketplace. Despite the rare quality of these grooves and the band’s popularity, they’re hopelessly obscure – and undeserved underdog status is fool-poof discaholic bait. Consider this listener hooked.
The aforementioned notes help. The CD comes with a 44-page booklet full off photos and colorful tales of a Redjeb’s triumphs and travails in a country where a lot of label heads burned the stock that wouldn’t sell, leaving what’s left in the scorpion-infested backrooms of embittered business men and eccentric music lovers. As swell as the booklet is, it’s that music – rough, accomplished, passionate, catchy, and indomitably funky – that tells the story you’ll want to hear over and over again.