Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou have played together for nearly 50 years and released even more albums, but there’s a caveat to that longevity. The Beninese band was forced to scale back their funky activities in the 1980s after the advent of a suffocating communist government and the deaths of several founding members. Decades later, the label Analog Africa began compiling and reissuing their songs, which brought this blistering group to the attention to a French journalist. Not only did that enable Orchestre Poly-Rythmo to tour the globe for freshly appreciative fans, it also gave them the opportunity to record an entirely new album, 2011’s Cotonou Club. Though some translation was required, the band fielded a few questions before making their Toronto debut this weekend.
I know that the group now has some younger members and some original ones have passed away, but how did you first come together?
OPR: We were school guys…we just had a passion for music, and we first came together as Sunny Black’s Band. But one day one of the guys who used to own the instruments for the band had to leave for France to follow his French girlfriend, so we had to look again for instruments. One shop called Poly Disco offered to sponsor us. He wanted us to be called Poly Orchestra – our boss and band leader Mélomé Clément refused, and he came up with the name Poly-Rythmo. At that time it was very hard for musicians to [make a living] from music, but we did [form] a band to make money, it was just with passion for music! Little by little, some labels started to be created in Nigeria, even a major company such as EMI in Lagos; we recorded in their studio, and met Fela, who was working there. In Ghana too, there were great labels, and we used to listen to highlife. Even in Cotonou there were some labels, especially Albarika whom we worked with, and in Niamey too (Musette de Niamey).
What kind of music were you hearing in Benin at the time? The country is very diverse – did certain groups all have their own styles? Where would you be playing live?
OPR: We could hear French music, American music like James Brown, and even English music like the Beatles. There is a huge diversity of culture and languages in Benin, more than hundreds! So each culture has its own tradition, its own rhythms and sounds.
We started playing live in various clubs that are no longer existing, unfortunately…it was Canne a Sucre, Zenith…
What was your reaction when labels started approaching you to reissue your ’70s recordings? Were there legal issues that had to be resolved with the people who first released your records?
OPR: In the beginning we were very happy, because we did not even think this music can still have a value! Some labels dealt with us and some dealt with the children of one of our producers, who passed away.
How did the cultural policy of Benin’s 1970s Marxist regime affect your careers?
OPR: We were singing for the regime, not really by political conviction but more for patriotism. The government never helped us money-wise, even today, because to be helped by a politician in Africa you need to find politicians who can be really interested in arts, which is rare. They usually use music only for their own promotion. With the communist regime, business was really down, so there was no chance of buying any instruments. People had to find a way of buying food first. With such a hard régime, culture is not the most important thing. First you have to respect revolutionary rules.
How did your newish album, Cotonou Club, come about? Was there anything you wanted to try on it that hadn’t been done on your decades-old records?
OPR: Nowadays it is very hard to record and to leave from music in Africa. We did not record together for almost 30 years! There are so many crooks and people who only think about making money from artists…and the piracy is a huge problem. So we never believed that one day we could record again (and in Europe!) or even travel out of Africa, until we met Elodie Maillot. She is a famous journalist from Radio France and she managed to find us in 2007 in Cotonou for an onterview. That day we decided to stick to her and started [trying] to convince her to help us to play outside of Africa, and then later to also become a producer herself.
Because there are no more producers and because people told us that we had to change our music to make it “exportable,” we had never played outside of Africa until we met her – people used to ask us if we would play Mandingue style like in Mali, or rap. By a real chance we met [Elodie], a journalist, so she was more interested in our story, in our music, than making money or changing anything. She even managed to bring all our living members to make a record, and chose an analog studio in Paris so we felt at home with all this vintage equipment. We realized that in France people cherish such equipment.Since we never thought about recording again we did not have any plans…but we were very happy to compose and record with Franz Ferdinand musicians!
Orchestre Poly-Rythmo will play a free Harbourfront Centre show tonight (July 13) at 9:30 pm, as part of the SoundClash Festival.