And the Band Plays Again

3 minute read
Gary Moskowitz

It’s been 20 years since Vincent Ahehehinnou and his bandmates in the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou could afford to spend their days playing music. Back then, the band from Benin — formed in the late ’60s following the country’s independence from France — was busy spreading the joys of Afrobeat, a blend of soul, funk and highlife that was the sound track for newly independent West African countries. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo toured the region with their mix of Latin, rock and voodoo rhythms — their influences ranging from James Brown to Françoise Hardy — and recorded some 500 songs. Joining Nigeria’s Fela Kuti, whose politically charged lyrics made him the voice of protest across Africa, and other Afrobeat stars of the ’60s and ’70s, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo became musical icons.

But by the early 1980s, political unrest and obstacles imposed by the new Benin government were making it increasingly difficult for the band to perform. The members slowly shifted their attentions to jobs and family. “Music filled us, but it didn’t feed us,” says Ahehehinnou, who worked as a bar manager.

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Now Afrobeat is getting a second wind, as record collectors, artists and fans find themselves drawn to its pure sound and political message. Surviving members of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo went on a short but successful European tour in 2009, after British label Soundway Records and Frankfurt record company Analog Africa started reissuing the band’s classic tracks. Their first new album in 20 years, Cotonou Club , on Strut Records, will be followed soon by a tour of Europe, the U.K. and the U.S.

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo’s return is not an isolated event. Celebrated Afrobeat artists are releasing new albums and touring. Popular R&B; and hip-hop artists such as Usher, Missy Elliott and Mos Def have sampled Afrobeat songs. Fela! , the musical based on Fela Kuti, had a critically acclaimed 15-month Broadway run in 2009 and 2010; an off-Broadway version, featuring his band Egypt 80, sold out two months of shows in London this past winter and additional shows are booked for the summer. Fela Kuti’s son Seun will soon tour with Egypt 80 to promote his new album, From Africa with Fury: Rise , co-produced by studio legend Brian Eno.

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For their part, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo don’t see Cotonou Club as the start of a new career, nor their tour as a one-off reunion; they simply see themselves as being at a crossroads. “This is all a big bet on us,” Ahehehinnou says. “This new album is special to us because we wanted our music to be known internationally. This is all warming our hearts.”

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