Poly-Rythmo band hits the North American road
For years, Benin harboured hidden treasure and one of the richest record outputs on the continent, yet it wasn’t until 2009 that Poly-Rythmo left Africa for the first time. Back on the road to play twenty dates round the world, the legendary band made their maiden tour of North America (Canada and the United States) from 2 to 22 July. Tales of a tour.
"Can voodoo spirits cross borders?” It’s a serious question for the Tout-Puissant Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou at the heart of their summer tour. For over forty years, the Beninese musicians have been drawing from the heritage of rhythms and melodies linked to the divinities of Iron, Thunder and Earth and mixing them with other types of music. Funk, soul, Afro-Latino: as their name implies Poly-Rythmo are open to a multitude of styles, transforming rhythms of all kinds into a Beninese version that works divine wonders on the dance floor.
Far from their homeland, the musicians seem to have struck the right chord, if post-concert reviews are anything to go by (“As indispensable as air conditioning in a heat wave,” wrote the Village Voice in New York). “The spirits accompany us everywhere because we take the right measures,” said Vincent, sitting in a minibus taking the band to the Montreal Jazz Festival. “We know what we can and can’t do,” continued the singer and co-founder of the legendary orchestra that got the whole of West Africa swinging. “As a child, I was told not to cry at night because the spirits didn’t like it and might steal my voice, but the spirits are basically very human, they like musicians and they love to dance!”
The mortals attending the first stage of Poly-Rythmo’s North American tour were clearly keen to get a taste of this Beninese poly-rhythmic recipe – two curtain calls weren’t enough to satisfy the audience at the Club Sodaqui in Montreal, and the groovy granddads were called back a third time! After years of inactivity, they’re still standing strong and just as powerful on stage. Their old vinyl records go for high prices on the Internet, and western re-releases have taken their hits across borders, leading up to a new album, Cotonou Club, in 2011.
But playing in the United States, the homeland of James Brown, was a particular challenge for the Beninese group. “Our hit, Gbeti Madjro, was broadcast on the radio station Voice of America at the end of the sixties,” recounts Mélomé Clément, who has led the band since it began in 1968. “They call me the American because the country has always fascinated me so much: James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Jimmy Hendrix… Poly-Rythmo wouldn’t be what it is today without them!”
The funky ambassador of a country where “vôdun” has its own national day, Poly-Rythmo no doubt received the blessing of other oracles to allow it to come back to life after decades lying dormant. Yet, when the band arrived in Quebec, one of the divinities that Mélomé Clément was particularly keen to mention was… Johnny Hallyday, also programmed to perform at the Summer Festival. Unfortunately, Poly-Rythmo’s idol hadn’t yet arrived when the young sixty-somethings played with their compatriot Angélique Kidjo. “Johnny has often sung at the same venues as us,” reminisced Pierre Loko, saxophonist and singer, “like in Niamey in Niger, where he did a tour. The audience even asked him to play some of our tracks!” Johnny didn’t oblige, despite the hundreds of numbers to choose from.
Are the deaths of some of their members (the drummer, a singer and a guitarist) enough to prevent Poly-Rythmo version 2.0 from coming up with global hits? “Our latest album was a bridge between our past and new songs, but we still needed to write. Inspiration is divine, it comes when it chooses. Thanks to the team spirit generated by our band leader, we don’t have much problem on that side!” said Vincent confidently, standing in front of the Niagara Falls, between Toronto and Louisville (Kentucky) , where the success of the new Afrofunk numbers, Africa, Gboza and Belle Afrique show that the future has already started to take shape. "Natures always inspires us,” mused Mélomé as he watched the water falling. “We want to sing about Africa here, and present it to our American cousins because our histories are inextricably linked.”
The last stage of this tour is a pan-African line-up on the big stage at the New York Summerstage in Central Park, with the Malians Smod and the Franco-Central African Bibi Tanga. "We’re really proud of the reception we get from audiences here! We can do it in Africa too, yes we can, and you never stop learning!” promised Vincent Ahéhéhinnou. In the run-up to the US elections, audiences in America are clearly voting for Poly-Rythmo during this summer campaign.
Official website of Poly-Rythmo