After The Super Rail Band (Mali), Orchestra Baobab (Senegal), Mulatu Astatke (Ethiopia) and Bembeya Jazz (Guinea), among others, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo from Benin are the latest to receive a new lease of life. A veritable ‘big band’ with plenty of brass, Poly- Rythmo were formed in the late 1960s, swiftly becoming popular throughout West Africa. Their music was a joyous, groove-driven blend of local styles – Fela-like Afrobeat, Congolese rumba, jazz and funk.
But in 1972, a military coup brought a regime to power whose attempt to create a Marxist-Leninist government strangled the country’s music scene by introducing a weekday live-music curfew an hour before midnight. By the mid-1980s, when the curfew ended, Benin was poverty-stricken. Nevertheless, Orchestre Poly- Rythmo soldiered on. They remained largely undetected elsewhere until, a few years ago, a handful of compilation albums of their 1970s evergreens started to come out on European labels.
Now they have recorded their first album for 25 years. Sublime met their singer, Vincent Ahehehinnou, and the Frenchwoman who rediscovered the band, Elodie Maillot, in London.
Sublime: What were the circumstances in which this album came to be?
Vincent Ahehehinnou: It all started when a journalist from Radio France by the name of Elodie Maillot came to see us for a show for Independence Day in Abomey. She really loved our music. After the interview, one of us said to her: ‘Please, madame, can you do something for us to be recognised outside Africa? We have never had a chance to play outside Africa.’ She said, ‘I’m just a journalist, but I’ll see what I can do.’ We ended up touring in 2009 with nine shows in Europe, and she was our tour manager. We had a little spare time to do the recording, and here’s the album!
S: Since elodie maillot is sitting here with us, acting as interpreter, perhaps she could tell us herself what attracted her so strongly to the music that she gaVe up her job With radio france and sank all her saVings into the recording of the album?
VA: I was always big fan of African music, and funk, and I had never found another band with such rhythmic and stylistic diversity. I discovered them while looking through the record library at Radio France. It was an album called 0 + 0 = 0, and I thought, We have the same love of mathematics – maybe we can get along! So I went to Benin to find them and do my interview. It really touched me when they said, ‘OK, you’ve recorded us talking, and you will broadcast our interview but will anything be different for us afterwards?’ People in Jamaica, Haiti, Congo, everywhere, always expect so much from you and your microphone. But as a journalist, there’s not much you can do to help in practical terms.
S: But this time things turned out differently. Why?
VA: As a huge fan of theirs, and I was beginning to feel that maybe here was an opportunity after all these years on the radio, and all the artists I had met, to try and do something, show some commitment. Then I met the band Franz Ferdinand. Somehow we ended up talking about Poly-Rythmo. Alex Kapranos was a big fan too, and told me it was his dream to meet them. I said to myself that if Franz Ferdinand love Poly-Rythmo, maybe we really can do something.
S: The songs on the album, are they new songs, or new versions of old songs?
VA: We decided to have some old songs because we wanted people to recognise us and be happy, but mix them with new songs. The next album will be only new songs.
S: The diversity of your music, especially the rhythms, is truly striking. Where does this diversity stem from?
VA: Poly-Rythmo are a real symbol of cultural diversity. In Benin you have 55 ethnicities. The diversity of our music is an expression of the diversity of our members’ roots.
S: What kind of music did you listen to when you were 13?
VA: The only thing I could listen to was the radio. But it belonged to my father. He said, If I hear the radio, that means you’re not studying. Later on, at college, I listened to the radio a lot, mostly French singers – Françoise Hardy, Mireille Mathieu – and Nana Mouskouri, mostly women. But also Richard Anthony and Michel Polnareff. Once Polnareff came out with a new album, and the poster showed his naked bum. That was a big shock in Africa. We also listened to American music. We didn’t understand the lyrics, and when we tried to learn them we had to learn them phonetically.
S: Fifty-five different peoples - does that mean 55 different languages as well?
VA: No – it means 105 languages! The first language is Fon; most of the others are just spoken languages. Nowadays the government supports and promotes the diversity of different languages, and to keep them alive there are attempts to support them as written languages.
S: Does the Government support music in similar ways?
VA: Until now, we’ve never had a president who had a cultural vision, an interest in culture.
S: Surely it was worse during the so-called marxist-leninist days in the 1970s?
VA: It was about the same. Yes, the regime banned music at night- time. What was good, though, was that they supported children’s education, and it was part of the official programme to learn about music, theatre and various cultural activities. That’s not the case now. All those school programmes back then enabled my generation to become artists.
S: So now there's a thriving music scene?
VA: Until today, 50 years after independence, my country has never had a proper venue for bigger shows. There are cinemas, that’s all. But they don’t show movies any more, they’re rented by evangelists and cults.
S: How do you explain this indifference? WHy don't the people demand films, music?
VA: I’m the vice-president of the National Federation of Artists, and we’ve been asking for meetings with the president to discuss this. But he refuses to meet us. I am also the president of the National Commission against Piracy. Our budget per year to fight piracy – which is very bad in Benin – was 45,000 euros, and has this year been reduced to 30,000 euros. I wonder if people really want to defend culture in our country. The Orchestre Poly-Rythmo is a national monument, but the only thing the government does to support us is to invite us occasionally to receive some medal. If you’re a functionary and you receive a medal, you get two years of promotion. An artist, however, receives nothing. In fact, he has to pay for the medal, and for the buffet and the party to go with it. So far, I have refused invitations to accept one.
S: I spoke to Femi Kuti not long ago, and he said piracy and downloading wasn't such a problem for Nigerian musicians because there were lots of places to play live, and earn a living that way.
VA: Our country is quite different to Nigeria. There are only 7m inhabitants in Benin, and of the 7m, 3m are foreigners from all over Africa. In Nigeria, if you make a good record, you can stop working for the rest of your life because it’s a huge country. You can sell 3m records. Of the 4m Beniniens, on the other hand, maybe only 100,000 people have the means to buy a CD. But of these 100,000, 95% would buy pirated material. Poverty doesn’t allow them to buy an official CD that costs about two euros, so they buy the bootlegs for 50 cents. If you manage to sell 5,000 CDs legally in Benin, it’s a lot.
S: How did the band support themselves financillay during the lean years?
VA: When you make music you have to believe, never give up. We have always fought to live from our music. We keep on playing, playing, playing.
S: Do your lyrics deal with problems like these?
VA: No, it would be useless. It could even make matters worse. It would also be bad for the young people. If a band like us has these troubles ... it would break their hope. So we try to manage day-to-day life on our own. Some of us have other, smaller bands. Others buy and sell small things. One of us does some soldering, one is a priest.
S: I thought that politically Benin was more open and democratic these days. I’m wrong, it Seems.
VA: We're one of the most democratic countries in Africa. But there's not interest in culture.
S: What kind of audiences do you get in Benin – do teenagers come as well, or is it mostly people wHho remember you from the 1970s?
VA: Our audiences range from children to old people. Ten-year-olds come on stage to dance with us.
S: Are the radio stations supportive?
VA: Now that we’re touring, everyone’s looking for our records, the old ones too. So the radio plays them all day long. It’s a real renaissance for us. There was a lot of emotion being back in the studio, recording. Even in our dreams we never thought that one day we would end up recording in France, and that our records would be distributed all over the world. Last year we played in Liverpool. The city of the Beatles! I was crying when I got off the bus. Me, in Liverpool!
Orchestre Poly-Rythmo, Cotonou Club (Strukt/!K7)