Thursday, 20 March 2014

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou - The Vodoun Effect (2008)

My experience of African culture - at least my direct experience - is fairly and perhaps sadly limited. William Bennett of seminal power electronics group Whitehouse has recently taken to recording African inspired confrontational music as Cut Hands. Some have pointed out that this may represent overcompensation for albums titled New Britain and those idiotic statements about gangs of National Front skinheads being an inspiring sight, or whatever stupid crap it was he came out with in the name of annoying liberals; but even if Cut Hands really is something other than William Bennett sitting next to one on the bus, I'd argue that it doesn't really help given its use of Africa as just another set of scary things waved in your face.

On the other hand, my eyes were well and truly opened when the British Museum had a rummage through its basement and put together its African galleries a few years back - African galleries as distinct from the crowd-pleasing and already fairly well publicised Egyptian collection. Even aside from it being the land from which we all originally came, Africa - it turns out - was never really quite the land of black people living in huts, moaning about elephants, and not much else as portrayed in post-colonial entertainment; but the image persists because the place is enormous, poorly understood by outsiders, and for every shovel of sand excavated in Egypt, a mere teaspoon's worth of archaeological investigation is undertaken in the name of the rest of the continent. It therefore came as a surprise to view Africa in terms of its archaeology and realise that it was never a land of cartoon savages, but rather was home to a great number of civilised and quite sophisticated societies with a lot more going on than we had at the time, at least until the Romans showed up and taught us how to use toilet paper. For one particularly striking example, as Janaki Lenin writes:
Farmers of the rainforests of Nigeria, Africa constructed an extensive network of earthen walls and moats. Astonishingly, in some places, the walls are twenty metres high and the moats twenty metres deep. What makes this even more remarkable is that Sungbo's Eredo - meaning Sungbo's Ditch - is thought to have been built around 1150AD on the orders of a childless matriarch, Bilikisu Sungbo (although the dates don't add up, locals believe that she is none other than the Queen of Sheba). The fortifications span 160km encompassing an area of 1400km2, the size of Delhi. Nearby Benin City has even more spectacular walls and trenches, extending 16,000km and covering an area of 6,500km2. This is thought to be the single largest archaeological phenomenon on the planet, an enterprise larger than the Egyptian pyramids. The zooarchaeologist, Juliet Clutton-Brock, believes they may be evidence of man's earliest elaborate defense of crops against elephants.

So, to swing back around in the general direction of the point, whilst I find African culture potentially fascinating, there's a hell of a lot of it and it's difficult to know where to start. Tsotsi was a great film; and I've never quite understood the appeal of Fela Kuti or that psychotically happy music they always seemed to use to advertise sporting events televised by the BBC; and that's about as far as I've got, until now.

To briefly fly off after another indirectly related train of thought, it could be argued that African art has had a profound influence on first world culture, at least depending on how much importance you place on the stuff hanging in our own art galleries. The influence of Picasso on contemporary art has been of undeniable significance, and of course Picasso would have remained just some randy Spanish bloke with the face of a plumber had he failed to notice that European painting was looking a bit saggy around the buttocks, and that those exciting angular wooden masks were just what the witch doctor ordered.

The same process has of course informed the evolution of rock and roll, and quite a lot of the music we listen to - with the possible exceptions of Beethoven, ELO, and all those Death In June bands - most of which can, roughly speaking, be traced back through rhythm and blues to traditional forms originated in Africa; and so in this collection of songs by Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou from Benin in West Africa, I suppose it's fair to say I had an expectation of hearing the pure form of something or other, or, to paraphrase Nocturnal Emissions, what the music sounded like before they got hold of it, they being the agents of the spectacle. To be fair, I had that expectation because I'd already heard a little bit of it when Kevin Harrison posted a YouTube clip of Mi Ni Non Kpo on his facebook page, and I was so impressed that I ran straight to my nearest internet and snapped up a copy of this collection. Interestingly enough, this is not actually your strictly traditional African music in so much as Orchestre Poly-Rythmo were quite happy to reclaim some of that which had evolved from the original template on foreign shores, incorporating all sorts of bits and pieces from jazz, blues, soul, funk and all those other genres which have since come to carry unfortunate associations with overly-earnest middle aged white men. Yet even with the discernible influence of James Brown amongst others, there's an absolutely unique magic to these songs. Without actually sounding exactly like anything I've heard before, this nevertheless feels like a sort of ur-music, a pure seam of the stuff in raw form in which one may discern traces of almost everything else ever - Led Zeppelin, 23 Skidoo, Motown, Can, LCD Soundsystem, even acid house - it's all here, somehow. In fact it's quite tough to think of music which owes no debt to the greater whole from which this clearly derives; and if this claim were not in itself sufficiently preposterous, it might also be worth noting that most of these songs were recorded by sticking a microphone in front of the band and pressing whichever resulting recordings sounded okay as seven inch singles. The recording values suggest early soul records, or Billy Childish, or even Steve Albini, and there's real power in that sound, the sort of thing that might be lost in a better equipped studio, or even one with a roof.

So to summarise, William Bennett likes to pull scary faces, Africa is probably more interesting than you realise, elephants are serious business, Picasso was the Paul Simon of his day, and this CD is like a better version of every record you've ever heard. After 1,076 words of scrabbling around like I've dropped my contact lenses, the review probably isn't too likely to cohere into linear sense at this juncture, so the point worth remembering is probably that The Vodoun Effect isn't quite like anything I've heard before, and is of such robust and honest constitution that it actually feels like it's doing you good as you listen. The rhythms are fantastically inventive, the instruments don't always do what would be expected of them were they playing some more familiar form, and the whole thing leaves you in a frankly amazing mood without doing any of that pathologically happy stuff favoured by other, better publicised African recording artists.

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