Orchestre Poly Rythmo de Cotonou are some of the most influential and virtuosic African musicians ever to play a note. Similar to the Rail Band of Mali and Afrika 70 of Nigeria, OPR were superstars in their home of Benin and throughout West Africa in the 1970's. After Analog Africa put out two compilation albums in 2008 and 2009, the band was re-introduced to the world and their popularity sky-rocketed as more and more African music fans discovered their hypnotic sound. I had the honor of speaking with founding member Vincent Ahehehinnou and producer Elodie Maillot several weeks ago about their new record Cotonou Club, which recently came out on Strut Records, as well as a range of other topics. Our convo got cut a little short, but we managed to fit plenty in:
Orchestre Poly-Rythmo - Pardon by Strut
Elodie Maillot: Hello Marc!
MGA: Hi how are you?
Elodie: We're good, where are you calling from?
MGA: I'm in NY.
Elodie: Oh ok.
MGA: And you guys, where are you? In Benin or somewhere else?
Elodie: No, we're in London we're about to go to Paris. We have a big show over there.
MGA: That's great, let's get started then. My first question is who are some of the musicians to whom you listened and who inspired you the most to create your own sound?
Elodie: American musicians, French musicians, African musicians?
MGA: Any of those.
Vincent Ahehehinnou: Of course Fela, also Congolese music and James Brown and other American musicians.
MGA: Who are some of the other American musicians besides James Brown?
Vincent: Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley so many…all of those people who were so successful in those years.
MGA: And some of the other African musicians, besides Fela?
Vincent: Fela and Franco from Congo mainly.
MGA: Vodun is such a major source of your sound. When one listens to your music which elements specifically could one hear which are taken from Vodun?
Vincent: We take Vodun rhythms and modernize them, we don't really take Vodun rhythms because they're traditional rhythms, we use elements of them and modernize them. If we want to do traditional Vodun rhythms, we need huge drums and some outfits, some clothes, so it's not possible to record these, so we take from it and to mix it with other influences.
MGA: Right, I understand. Since 2008, when the first compilation album was released on Analog Africa, how has your life changed since your music has been re-introduced to a contemporary international audience?
Vincent: It has changed significantly because in the beginning when people came to look for our records in Contonou, we were surprised we didn't really know what they were looking for. Some people came to buy the record and make a compilation, we didn't believe in it. We thought they'd take the cash and run away with it, get a little bit of money. We didn't think it would bring other things to us. The real change was when we came to Europe and were able to perform there. When we met Maillot we were surprised that people had heard our music before from the compilation.
MGA: Yea when that record came out it mad a big impression on a lot of people. And I'd imagine it was a really big event back in Benin as well to have the international music community take notice of something that had been going on locally for so long.
Vincent: For us it was a big big emotion especially for our generation and see old guys like us. Some people even cried when we told them we're traveling through Europe. We thought our time was finished. I think that has really changed. People look at us so much differently.
MGA: That's great. So since the band last recorded together, how much time has passed between then and now with the new record coming out on Strut?
Elodie: 25 years.
MGA: Wow, so how did the project come about? Did Strut approach the band or did the band approach the label?
Elodie: Actually I'm the producer. Strut is distributing the record in the US and Europe.
MGA: Oh ok, so did you approach the band?
Elodie: Well, yes, it's kind of a long story actually. I was a radio producer in France and I went to Benin to produce some radio shows in 2007. I knew the band from the record library at Radio France where we have about 1,000,000 records, so when I travelled I always listened. So I became a fan of the band and I thought if I go do some interviews and some work I could meet the orchestra. So when I started to ask some people, they told me no, they're dead, they're not playing anymore, you're not going to find them again. Then I find them when they were playing at the national independence day. I tried to record them live but the sound was really rough. I interviewed them, and they saw how much I love the band. So they told me, you help us, you help us travel and play in Europe, because we've never done this, not even one day outside Africa. I told them I don't think I can help them because I'm just a journalist. But they said yea but you can do it. You have to promise us, you can help us travel and make a good show. And then they keep on calling me, and then a few months later and I interviewed Franz Ferdinand, and we started to talk about African music and they told me Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo they signed a deal to put out a compilation with Luaka Bop, and how much they love the band and their dream is to play with them. They keep on calling me, to help them. On the other hand I saw there is an interest for musicians to play with them, and I wrote an article in a magazine in France for a jazz festival and I talked to them and they said they we are ready to program the festival and bring the band if you can manage to bring them which was a big long story because people wouldn't believe they're still alive and playing good. There's no record, just old compilations so there's no proof they're still alive and playing good. So I realized in order to find shows for them, I'd have to start producing an album. Financially, I had a car accident so I got some money from the insurance, and that's how it all started.
MGA: Well, that's an interesting story, the world will definitely thank you for your efforts. As soon as the compilations came out on Analog Africa the demand and popularity of the band sky-rocketed. I didn't even know who they were before the compilations came out and I'm a huge fan of African music. I've listened to the album and it's really great. What do you think is different about the new album, what can someone expect to hear in this album that will distinguish it from their previous work?
Elodie: You want me to ask Vincent?
MGA: I'd be interested in your opinion as well as Vincent's.
Elodie: Ok well in my opinion, the idea was to keep the energy and sound that is not always perfect and sometimes a bit funky, which is the great energy the band has. So the idea was to capture the same energy and to reach a certain level of quality of song which can reach radio stations and achieve a little more clean sound, not to change the song at all, to respect the song, but to embellish it a little bit because of the means. That was the idea. It's a real journey for us. You want me to ask him?
MGA: Yes Please.
Vincent: Well today, we're convinced there's no other album we can do. This is our best album because when we released a record in the 70's we did them very quickly, and our producer was just releasing it very local on vinyl, but this time we're making an album that can reach such an international audience which will be distributed worldwide on the same day. It's a real gift from god. It's very exciting for us to penetrate the rest of the world.
MGA: Do you think the popularity of African music has grown over the last several years?
Vincent: Yes, not only African music but all music. Which is what we realize and we're so happy about it.
MGA: You mentioned it a little earlier, but how has your music been received on your first European tour and your more recent tour dates?
Vincent: We had a warm welcome wherever we went. The music is perceived in a totally different way than in Benin. From country to country, but it's always really warm. People are clapping, people are standing, something people don't really do in Africa.
MGA: How does the reception vary between Europe and Africa?
Vincent: It's a very big difference because in Africa if you really play good, people don't really clap for you. In Europe, people really clap though. So when people really clap you can't disappoint people.
MGA: Does the band plan to tour The US and Canada?
Elodie: Yes in the summer.
MGA: Awesome, I hope to catch you guys.
Elodie: Yes it depends on the album, hopefully it will go well.
MGA: How does it make you feel to have your music compared to Fela Kuti.
Vincent: Fela is the greatest. We cannot be compared to Fela. We really respect him and his memory. We cannot really be compared to him, he is too big for us.
MGA: Really too big?
Vincent: Of course. Because of his political involvement, and also the way he stands on stage.
MGA: Did you ever see him perform live?
Vincent: Of course, we used to record in the same studio in Lagos. And the best tribute we could do we covered one of his songs at a big festival in 77 in front of 10,000 people. We played Lady. He saw us on TV and he came to the national arena. So its's important for us to give people tribute.
MGA: How did the dictatorship of Mathieu Kerekou effect the band and its ability to function?
Vincent: He really stopped people from going out. So there's no music without and audience. He put a curfew at 11 o'clock so it killed all the nightclubs. Some bars tried to play music in the night and some people got arrested