Don’t bother the Tout Puissant Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou with any questions about whether it’s “better to burn out or fade away.” Nearly 50 years into their career, the Benin band is back with another new album, driven by the conviction that Neil Young was wrong about being old.
“Our intentions for this album was to conquer the world, to convince those that could doubt our capacity to compose, because of our age,” lead singer Vincent Ahehehinnou told Radiooooo.com.
Ahehehinnou is one of three original members of the group to play on the new album, Madjafalao, released by the Because Music label. It is a tribute to the integrity of the sound they’ve been working on since the late ’60s that even with new, younger players, the album lives up to their considerable and growing legacy. Their genre-defying blend of Afrobeat, James Brown funk, rumba, highlife and Beninese vodou seems to have an endless shelf life.
Thanks to an Afrofunk-hungry public, Poly-Rythmo is now experiencing a second wave of popularity. In the 1970s they were popular across West Africa, playing alongside no lesser contemporaries than Fela Kuti. Their funky, innovative, often psychedelic music from that era has won the band scores of new fans over the last decade via reissues and compilations on Analog Africa and Soundways Records. After a long dormancy, the band reunited for a world tour in 2008. In 2011, the band released Cotonou Club, their first new music since the ’80s and the album was well received by critics, including that of Afropop’s Banning Eyre.
Their latest, Madjafalao, was also recorded at the legendary Satel Studio in Cotonou, Benin. It opens with the title track, a silky Afrobeat or juju-influenced jam. “Wangnigni,” the second track, has a much more pronounced Latin element, a reminder of the Cuba-by-way-of-Congo milieu that prevailed across West Africa back when the band formed.
Even when the orchestra finds itself in a distinctive rhythmic pocket, it lives up the “Poly-Rythmo” part of its name. Midway through “Wangnigni,” another rhythm laps over the groove, like waves hitting the shore. The track “Heritage” features a wistful rising line in the horn section over a rhythm that seems to cut under itself. It’s almost painfully beautiful.
The record was produced by Florent Mazzoleni, who also is a writer, record collector, and the man behind a three-CD box set of classic tracks from Bobo Dioulaso, the second city in Burkina Faso: Bobo Yéyé: Belle Époque in Upper Volta out Oct. 28, on Numero Group. He was featured on the recent Afropop episode “Off the Beaten Path in Malawi and Burkina Fasso.”
Time has been kind to the band. Their voices are deeper; the production is cleaner, but the essence remains. A band whose 1968 hit, “Gbeti Madjro,” once appeared on an Analog Africa compilation called African Scream Contest is still screaming a whopping 48 years later on the track “Finlin Ho.” Are they burning out? Are they fading away? Wherever they’re heading, the all-powerful Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou isn’t going gently.