Sunday, July 22, was a banner day at Central Park, Summerstage, still one of New York’s most pleasant summer music venues. Sunny, but not too hot, the day was perfect for a feast of uplifting African music. Self-described “Parisian groove theorists” Bibi Tanga and the Selenites opened the show. Sadly, car trouble prevented this reviewer from catching their set, but word-of-mouth was positive, and the vibe was flowing as SMOD–a rap act from Mali led by Sam, son of the legendary Amadou & Mariam–took the sunny stage.
Singers and rappers, DJ Sam, Ousco and Donsky make up SMOD’s dynamic front line. Manu Sauvage on keyboards and programing puts the “M” in SMOD, and provides most of the accompanying music, save when Sam picks up his acoustic guitar to strum along. The music is spare and simple by comparison with rootsier Malian outfits, putting all the attention on intricate vocal arrangements that move between solo rapping and singing, harmonized refrains and, occasionally, pointed exchanges between the three charismatic vocalists.
Tuneful hooks worthy of Amadou & Mariam hits are key in the SMOD formula. The melodies are easy to sing, and audiences respond well to invitations to join in. The anthemic “Les Dirigeants Africains (African Leaders)” is a good example. This does not feel like especially political rap, and it isn’t. These artists see music–including hip hop–as a constructive force in society. Of course, their current work was composed before Mali’s shocking political meltdowns of 2012, so we’ll see if future offerings from SMOD and other Malian rappers wield more edge.
Musically, the flow between rapping and singing is effective and engaging overall. SMOD’s self-titled debut CD (in the US, Nacional Records, 2011) benefited–or suffered, depending on your point of view–from production by Manu Chao. Chao’s distinctive stamp echoes faintly in the live set, but only faintly–this is a bare bones presentation, and that puts the entertainment burden on the three front men. By comparison with SMOD’s New York debut last January at GlobalFEST, this performance soared with a big stage and blaring sunlight allowing Ousco and Donsky to remove their shirts, prowl at large and rally the crowd with theatrical antics, such as a competition to see which half of the audience could sing the loudest. Ousco and Donsky played opposing team coaches at stage left and right, while Sam served as discerning judge. All this worked well, and SMOD left the stage showered in good will from a happy audience.
Anyone lucky enough to catch the 2010 New York debut of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou at Lincoln Center has surely been waiting for the legendary Benin Voodoo-funk band’s return. And what a day for it! This band rocked Benin, and West Africa, in the late 60s and through the 70s. Their blend of Afro-Latin sounds, afrobeat, and local roots was unique, especially for their innovative adaptations of sacred Voodoo rhythms and melodies. These guys are enthusiastic advocates of this maligned and misunderstood religion. In the notes to the band’s 2011 release Cotonou Club (Sound’Ailleurs/Strut), co-founder Vincent Ahéhéhinnou predicts, “Voodoo is the future of humanity.” That may be a bit much, but witnessing the miracle of Poly-Rythmo in full glory on a New York stage, anything seemed possible.
Poly-Rythmo has long been consigned to nostalgia shows in Benin and reissue CDs (on Luaka Bop, Analog Africa and Soundway). When French radio journalist Elodie Maillot went searching for them with her Nagra tape recorder in Contonou in 2007, many told here she was too late. Maillot found otherwise, and the encounter changed her life. This band’s reemergence owes much to her hard work and determination in arranging concerts, tours, press coverage and the recording of Cotonou Club. Maillot was on hand at Summerstage, overjoyed with the day, and still hauling that Nagra!
The band begun with their more Latin-oriented fare, featuring elegant dance moves and vocal interplay among the principle singers–Anago Cosme, Vincent Ahéhéhinnou and Mélomé Clément–lyrical guitar solos and brisk brass section passages. Poly-Rythmo paced their show beautifully, first bringing the funk, then diving into the Voodoo livened by percussion and colorful swaths of psychedelic guitar work. One high point was a breathless read of the band’s 1968 hit “Gbeti Madjro.” Fellow Beninois Angelique Kidjo guests on the new recording of this classic, though, alas, she was not on hand today. Her misfortune. This band was on fire!
Poly-Rythmo owned this crowd from the start, and by the time their set ended with a long, ecstatic, Voodoo-fused jam, the mood was Summerstage high. An encore was required, and provided.
At a time when more and more attention is turning to younger, leaner, more tech-oriented African acts like SMOD, and when the logistics of touring big bands like Poly-Rythmo grow more and more daunting, shows like this are rare fruit. This audience’s overwhelming response proves that the music still resonates. Kudos to Elodie Maillot, Summerstage, and the indefatigable musicians of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo for not letting us forget…