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Orchestre Poly-Rythmo - Cotonou Club

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Artist: Orchestre Poly-Rythmo

Album: Cotonou Club

Label: Strut

Review date: Apr. 29, 2011

It’s one thing to unearth great cuts by an old band, but quite another to dig up the band itself. The 1960s and ‘70s vintage recordings of Benin’s Orchestre Poly-Rythmo De Cotonou collected by the Analog Africa label on African Scream Contest, Legends Of Benin, and two sets devoted solely to the band are amongst the best arguments proffered by the 21st century to keep listening to music. By turns jubilantly propulsive and laconically grooving, the Orchestre’s output made a strong case that they were one of the top funk bands in the world. A combination of great success on their home continent, bad local politics and worse luck conspired to keep them from playing in Europe or the U.S. back in the day. Since then, a few key members died, and although they never completely packed it in, they rarely played between the late ‘80s and 2007.

It was that year that French journalist Elodie Maillot tracked them down for an interview. She got more than she bargained for; saxophonist Melome Clement and bassist Gustave Bentho charged her with getting them to Europe, and she complied. The Orchestre that first toured Europe in 2009 and played the U.S. in 2010 didn’t sound exactly like the spirited Orchestre of yore. A horn section provides more punch than the guitars, which lack the beginner’s mind inventiveness that Zoundegnon “Papillon” Bernard routinely summoned, but they avoided some of the worst missteps (stiff programmed beats, bad keyboard sounds) that trip up so much recent African pop, and they played their old songs with pride and more than sufficient energy.

Now comes the Orchestre’s first album in 20 years, Cotonou Club, and it has some of the bet-hedging one tends to see when musicians don’t trust what they’ve got — re-recordings of old material and guest stars. And what’s with the shortened name? That truncation extends to the song titles; “Dadje Von O Von Non,” which they first recorded with the singer Gnonnas Pedro, is now “Von Vo Nono.” It moves a bit slower now and it has a squiggly Minimoog, massed vocals, and a full horn section instead of the original’s spidery guitars responding to Pedro’s giddy call.

But different doesn’t mean bad; this version has gravitas as well as soul, and when they pick up the tempo and flow into a whooping vocal break, it’s clear that the Orchestre still has that hard-to-nail-down “it.” Likewise, its new version of “Gbeti Madjro” may not be quite so spacious and jittery, but it still hits it hard, and the energy in Clement’s lead vocal matches guest singer Angelique Kidjo’s.

The Orchestre still lives up to the Poly-Rythmo part of its name, taking the Congolese high-life groove of “Ma Vie” at a smoking sprint and mixing wah-wah funk guitar with salsa piano licks on “Koumi Dede.” The band doesn’t play like it wants your mercy; more like it wants you to dance, and if you don’t, it’s your loss.

Still, Cotonou Club is not a perfect album. “Lion Is Burning,” which features two members of Franz Ferdinand, isn’t a total travesty, but with its sore-thumb slide guitar flourishes and over-buffed synths, it does feel like it walked in from another, lesser album. But it’s tucked at the end of the record, easy to avoid if you’re of a mind to do so.

By Bill Meyer

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