Benin’s Orchestre Poly-Rythmo was formed in the late 1960s and was responsible for several hundred vodon-inspired funk, rumba, and Afrobeat sides during its 1970s heyday. The group has become known to audiences outside of West Africa in recent years thanks largely to compilations put out by Miles Cleret’s Soundway label and Analog Africa. While those albums have been whetting the appetites of funk and African music fans, the band has re-emerged and undertaken its first tour of Europe and North America under the leadership of founding member Mélomé Clément. While the deaths, in the early 1980s, of original “poly-rythmic” drummer Yehoussi Leopold and cosmic guitarist Bernard Papillon robbed the band of much of its special magic, Clément has put together a strong line-up of musicians who have been keeping the hallowed halls of the world music network entertained even as the band’s earlier incarnations have been filling the floors at funk-based club nights.
The potential for a mismatch between expectation and reality is always going to be high when an act that’s been (re)discovered on the vinyl archeology scene is also plying its trade as an extant, albeit older and possibly uncooler, entity. For every hipster-attracting Tony Allen or Mulatu Astatke, there are plenty more who have taken the understandable but often bland heritage tourism option promoted by the world music network (the continued marketing of Buena Vista Social Club as a concept that can survive the passing of its most notable contributors is only the most visible example). By putting out a new studio album — their first in two decades, according to Strut — Orchestre Poly-Rythmo will inevitably invite comparison to their earlier work, especially when that album is named Cotonou Club, a title that connects them to their home city and their original full name (T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou). The title might also suggest to the more cynically-minded an attempt to use that marketing-friendly “club” tag to associate the group with other veteran world music acts.
Cotonou Club backs up the feeling I got when I saw the group on their recent UK tour, namely that, while they’re still very funky, they aren’t currently laying the voodoo down like they did on those magic 70s discs. On the album, this can partly be put down to track lengths. Album opener “Ne Te Faches Pas” is a new take on an old Poly-Rythmo classic. Most of the elements are still in place: the horns, bass, and drums lock together to ensure safe delivery of the funk; Papillon’s magical guitar break has been recreated; the vocals are just fine. But where the version released on the Zero + Zero album and on Cleret’s compilation clocked in at over 10 funky minutes, the new version fades before five. This does make a difference because the extended groove was one of the elements that made the original so strong. The 2011 version sounds compressed, a brief reminder of an extended pleasure, like Isaac Hayes shrunk back down to Glen Campbell proportions.
“Gbeti Madjro,” another 70s classic that appeared on Analog Africa’s African Scream Context, is revisited rather more successfully thanks to some spectacular guitar work by Papillon’s replacement, Fifi LePrince. The track also features Beninese world music star Angélique Kidjo, though the additional vocal is more symbolic than affective. Play it for the guitar and drums instead, which prove that glowing embers are capable of catching beautiful fire when the right material is laid on them.
Indeed, on repeated listens, such moments start to stand out in most of the tracks. On “Oce,” it’s the closing 40 seconds of bass and percussion. On “Mariage / Ou C’est Lui,” it’s the unexpected texture added by Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara. “Halonon’s” keyboards whisk us back to the organ-ic 70s for a tantalizing spell. These are fleeting moments of pleasure, though, and only make one wish that some of these special sonorities were given more space to work their wonders. “Ma Vie” promises to offer more than moments due to the sense of space given to the track by the gradual introduction of the instruments (voice and spare rhythm, then bass, lead guitar, horns); it’s a really well-paced set-up for a track, but again it all fades out too quickly.
The final guest spots on Cotonou Club go to Nick McCarthy and Paul Thomson of Franz Ferdinand, who lend “Lion Is Burning” an urgent buzz seemingly at odds with the other tracks on the album. It’s not at all bad and suggests a couple of ways in which Orchestre Poly-Rythmo might yet attempt new sonic textures with the kind of abandonment they showed in their younger days. It’s a thought- and funk-provoking end to an album that, while not groundbreaking or particularly standout, heralds a welcome return for a band who have been too long away from the limelight. They continue to put on a fantastic live show and, who knows, may yet record some amazing new material. Meanwhile, past and present continue to inform each other. Even as the band arrange more international live shows, news reaches us that Redjeb is planning to re-release two 1970s Poly-Rythmo albums.