Nicolas Moncadas is a French/Spanish documentary filmmaker, blogger and record collector who maintains two amazing blogs on Beninois music, orogod.blogspot.com and danialousagbohan.blogspot.com. Access to his collection and the information he provided were invaluable resources in the production of Afropop’s recent show Benin: Transforming Traditions. Producer Morgan Greenstreet spoke with Nico on the phone from Paris. Below is parts of their conversation, interspersed with excerpts from Nico’s documentaries on Sagbohan and Vodun. The documentaries are in French, but the music and images make them well worth watching for the non-Francophone as well!
M.G.: It is a pleasure to speak with you, I’ve been a fan of your blog, Orogod for quite a while.
N.M.: It is a pleasure to talk with you! It is always a pleasure to meet fans of the blog. Since it is a bit of a secret, I rarely have live contact with people who are fans of the blog.
M.G.: Well, I’m a fan! I’ve gotten to know a lot of great music thanks to it. Can you please introduce yourself and let us know a little bit of your history, and how you became interested and involved with Beninois music ?
N.M.: Ok, no problem. My name is Nicolas Moncadas. I’m French, half French half Spanish. I’m a movie director, I mean documentaries. I’ve been making documentaries for 17 years. And I made some documentaries about Vodun in Benin. That was the first part of my work in Benin. And I met Danialou Sagbohan, the famous singer and percussionist there, and I made a documentary about him. I’ve been shooting footage of him for many years. And after this documentary, I decided to get more involved in music from Benin, music from the ‘70s. So I began a collection, a collection of vinyl. And that’s how I became interested in music from Benin. It was thanks to this singer, Danialou Sagbohan.
M.G.: How did you meet Danialou Sagbohan ?
N.M.: It was a strange meeting. The first time I met Danialou was in 1997. It was just before my first documentary about Vodun. And people there told me, “If you want to talk about Vodun, you have to meet this musician, because he’s really involved in Vodun music.” So I went to Ouidah, a famous place in Benin, famous for its slavery history. And each year, on the 10th of January, there’s a kind of Vodun carnival over there. And people told me, “He is here, you can film him if you want.” I was with my video camera. I was not shooting a documentary, I was there just checking out what was happening. And people showed me the place where he was, and there were dozens of people around him. He playing percussion and singing. But I couldn’t film him, or even see him. So my first meeting was like sacred or something very special, because I could not see him, I couldn’t hear him and this was my first meeting. The real one was three years later, for my first documentary. I went to his home, and we had a meeting, and we decided to make a fabulous sequence together. It was a very nice meeting for me, and for the crew as well.
M.G.: Can you give a short biography of Sagbohan?
N.M.: Sagbohan began his professional music career at the age of 17, but before that, he used to play percussion with Vodun groups, very young, at the age of 5 or 6. Then, the second step, he began to play congas at the age of 17 in a band called Los Commandos. It was one of the first bands in Benin. But his father was not, how do we say, he was against this, this kind of musical career. After a few years, the famous singer, Ignace De Souza, who created afrobeat with Fela in Ghana, decided to engage Sagbohan in his band. His band is still famous because they are still playing in Benin today. His band is called the Black Santiagos. So Sagbohan began with the Black Santiagos in 1972, more or less. After this, he had his own career. He began in ‘77. And nowadays he’s a famous artist and singer in Benin, really famous.(Excerpt of a documentary on the Golden Era of Beninois music, featuring interviews and footage with Ignace De Souza, and a clip of Sagbohan in concert)
The other thing about Sagbohan: He was the first musician to mix traditional rhythms with modern rhythms like funk or afrobeat, and also jazz. He was the first to put jazz into his music. And he’s still playing both styles of music, traditional and modern. For example, he’s often called to play in traditional ceremonies, like Vodun ceremonies, I mean popular ceremonies, or even funerals. So he’s both known for these two kind of music.
Sagbohan is not, and has never been initiated into Vodun. Because he’s muslim. And he has never been initiated. He’s not part of the Vodun. So it’s very exceptional of him to be invited to Vodun ceremonies, to let him play his percussion.
M.G.: Very interesting. So he’s a performer, a musician within the ceremonies, but he’s not actually a member of the religion.
M.G.: Can you tell us the story of “Gbeto Vivi,” the song Sagbohan recorded with Orchestre Poly-Rythmo? How did that come about?
N.M.: “Gbeto Vivi” is one of the most famous tunes from Sagbohan Danialou. This tune made him famous in Benin when he first composed it. And he played it for the first time with Orchestre Poly-Ritmo. There’s an anecdote, a little story about this tune: Poly-Rythmo contacted him and ask him if he wanted to play with them in Nigeria, where they went to the studio. So he came there, and he began to play. But Poly-Rythmo’s drummer was really tired, because he had played all day in the studio. So Sagbohan said, “Ok, no problem, I’m going to play drums.” Because he’s also a drummer! We didn’t mention that Sagbohan Danialou is a great drummer. He used to be one of the best drummers in West Africa during the ‘70s. So he began to play drums and the studio engineer tried to install a microphone, because for the engineer, it was the first time he was recording a drummer singing at the time. And also for Danialou, it was the first time. So he recorded “Gbeto Vivi” singing and playing drums at the same time.
M.G.: Excellent. Do you know, or can you speak about the meaning of the song a little?
N.M.: It’s a love song. It’s a love song, and I don’t know the lyrics very well. It’s not a Vodun or traditional song, it’s purely a love song.
M.G.: So what happened recently to Sagbohan and his son? I read about food poisoning…
N.M.: Oh Morgan, my friend, this is a terrible story. A few weeks ago, it was the 11th of December, which was Danialou Sagbohan’s birthday. He was at home, have a party, a little party, a private party with friends. And his older son, Djibril, who is also a famous musician, he has already recorded an album, he came home to see his father, because he had problems, he was kind of ill. So he went to see his father, and ask him for medicinal plants. So his father brought back a bottle of traditional alcohol mixed with plants. He made him taste… He tasted first, Sagbohan, because it’s the tradition, when you invite someone to drink something, you drink first, to make the person comfortable. So Danialou drank first from the glass of alcohol, and then the son took a glass, and even Sagbohan’s manager drank from the bottle. And half an hour later, they all fell into a coma. It was a really bad situation! They had to go straight to the hospital, and one hour later, Danialou Sagbohan’s son Djibril died. And Danialou was still in a coma for a while. It was a really bad story. We don’t know what happened, if someone tried to poison Sagbohan. But in the end, it was his son who died of this poisoned bottle.
M.G.: It’s really sad.
N.M.: It’s really sad, because it was the day of Danialou Sagbohan’s birthday, and it was the day before his son Djibril’s new album was to be released.
M.G.: So sorry to hear that. We wish Sagbohan and a swift recovery to health, and we mourn with his family. Well, I want to thank you, Nico, for talking with me! I hope we get the chance to meet soon, and keep up the good work!
N.M.: Thank you as well. I hope one day we will have the chance to meet together.