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V/A - Legends of Benin

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Artist: V/A

Album: Legends of Benin

Label: Analog Africa

Review date: Jun. 23, 2009

If notable for nothing else, the track "DaDje Von o Von Non" bears a weird, slightly downtempo’d kinship with Death’s "Politicians In My Eyes." It’s a bizarre moment likely to be shared by anyone fortunate enough to have heard both this year’s Death reissue and Legends Of Benin, the latest comp from Analog Africa. It would not be hard to make the case that "the West African music from the 1960’s and 1970’s that isn’t Fela" compilation market has probably reached the point of oversaturation. It’s like a dude can hardly walk down street without tripping over Obi Dandy’s Reasonably Good Looking Soldier Band Volumes 92 through 142, The Hidden Lost Funk Years. With oversaturation comes fatigue, and in fatigue there is a desensitivity that becomes loss.

Little rewards, however, await anyone who can maintain even the slightest attention span. The 14 songs -- from various incarnations of three or four key artists -- each have their own differentiating elements. Found on a number of these selections is what seems like a distinctly Beninois propensity for multiple instruments playing extended melodic lines and riffs in a tight unison. Honoré Avolonto’s (with the famed Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo) "Tin Lin Non" bursts out of the gate with a proggy unison jam and quickly slides back into a chatty afro-beat vamp, drawing contrast between the uniquely Beninoise and the more regional West African vibe, only to step out again with a spacey synthesizer solo at the five-minute mark.

The voices, whether they are the individual singers or the whole chorus, have a reedy fragility (check out "E Nan Mian Nuku," whose saxophone solo sounds a good couple of thousand kilometers away from Lagos) that sometimes quivers in what could almost certainly be mistaken as coming from the Horn of Africa, such as Ethiopia, or another country within the Islamic/Arabic sphere of cultural influence. The people of Benin, however, have always stood out amongst their post-colonial neighbors in that their coups, if they occur at all, have been quiet, bloodless affairs, their government has often leaned left to the point of being called Marxist, and many of their people have resisted the influences of Islam and Christianity. They are, after all, the center of the Vodun universe, and wear their decidedly African animist beliefs as a national badge.

In what could be a gentle gesture of national musical identity reinforcement, the agogo bells often jump to the front of the mix, helping reinforce at least the ethnic identity, if not a national one. The rhythms of Vodun are often discernible in the music, but they are rarely the overriding hallmark. The softening of the mix, the unison playing, the occasional surfacing of unique instrumentation, and the almost bittersweet voices go a long way to help distinguish the work of these musicians from that of harder grooved juggernauts like the more dominant acts from Nigeria and Ghana.

The use of brass, too, is just different enough to be noteworthy. Whereas brass arrangements in more contemporary afro-beat recordings tend to be percussive and shiny, the arrangements on tracks here, including Honoré Avolonto’s "Na Mi Do Gbé Hué Nu" and Antoine Dougbé’s "Dou Dagbe Wé," show a muted restraint that might imply conservatory training (or maybe just lots of Red Army marching band exercises). A rare trumpet solo in the former smacks of Herb Alpert’s serpentine and humorous attack, but quickly recedes back into formation with the rest of the brass section, sharing the background with a reedy organ.

Legends Of Benin cries out for a chance to be heard on its own terms; one can only hope this more nuanced take on African funk gets a chance to shine amongst the harder-edged, cold-sweatier offerings that beat it to market over the last several years.

By Andy Freivogel

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