Right from the start, the music of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou swept away the tiny West African nation of Benin, sandwiched between Ghana and Nigeria. The band's voices, brass section, guitar and percussion wove together to crystallize a golden age in music for the region. Under the eccentric reign of Mathieu Kérékou, their irresistible Afro-funk lit up the mornings on Benin national radio, with a sound that owes as much to an unbridled admiration for the marathon funk jams of James Brown, and the singing of Dalida and Johnny Halliday, as to the frenetic urban sounds of Cotonou.
Drawing from one of the richest cultural melting pots in the world, the band has recorded over 500 songs in more than 40 years together, and become Benin’s most identifiable name. Their music is also deeply anchored in voodoo music, principally the Sato rhythms, beat out by an immense vertical drum and the Sakpata, which is devoted to the voodoo divinity protecting people from smallpox. What marks out Orchestre is its ability to modernize these vibrant traditional rhythms by integrating psychedelic guitar riffs, unreal organ harmonies, funk and soul.
The result is a thrillingly hectic body of music that has been given new life thanks to the labors of the Frankfurt based label Analog Africa, which is devoted to the rediscovery of the musical repertoire of the 1970s in Africa’s major cities. Impressed by the prolific output of Poly-Rythmo and the band’s ability to sing in Fon, Yoruba, Mina and French, in 2008 the label released The Vodoun Effect 1972-1975 and the well-received compilation African Scream Contest. The latter, with 14 classics from Benin’s Golden Age, includes the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou’s big hit “Gbeti Madjro”. Today, it sounds as fresh as when it was written.