Monday, June 17, 2013


T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou - Poly-Rythmo '76 Vol. 1
T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou was an eclectic and prolific band from Benin who combined traditional Vodoun rhythms with salsa, funk and soul. Their name, in literal English, is something like The All-Mighty Orchestra with Many Rhythms from Cotonou. (T.P. stands for "tout puissant" or "all-mighty" and Cotonou is the capital of Benin). In the West, their music is primarily available in the form of five compilations and one reissued LP.

The band was founded by Clement Melome, Francois Hoessou, and Eskill Lohento (the latter known in Benin as "Le Rossignol"). A businessman named Seidou Adissa, whom Melome has referred to as "our guardian angel", bought them instruments and became their producer. The band recorded frequently for his label, Albarika Store, although when he was out of town on business they would "secretly" record for other, smaller labels as well. (Analog Africa gathered recordings made for these smaller labels on a compilation called The Vodoun Effect: 1972-1975 Funk & Sato From Benin's Obscure Labels. A sister volume, Echos Hypnotiques: From the Vaults of Albarika Store 1969-1979, features recordings made for Adissa's label.)

At the band’s peak there would be 16 members, and the core musicians in the group had unique specialties that contributed to the band's eclecticism. Amenoudji "Vicky" Joseph, for example, who was recruited by Melome to supplement drummer Leopold Yehoussi, sang in Mina and specialized in traditional music. Eskill, on the other hand, sang in Fona and French.

T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou - Zoundegnon Bernard 'Papillon' guitariste principal Lead guitarist Zoundegnon "Papillon" Bernard was barely competent when he first joined the band (according to Eskill) but Melome liked him, so he stayed. Later on, after improving his skills considerably, Papillon would take the lead on some fantastic Soukous recordings that would bring the band tremendous sales. (One of those records is my favorite by this band. Bearing the text "Zoundegnon Bernard 'Papillon' guitariste principal" on the cover, it features two extended compositions. The bright, multi-sectioned "Chérie Coco" on the A-side and "Mille Fois Merci" on the B. Both tracks are now available on the compilation Reminiscin' in Tempo: African Dancefloor Classis (sic) released by the Popular African Music label.)

T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou - Ahehehinnou Vincent & Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou Dahomey In 1968, Papillon and bassist Gustave Bentho recruited a singer named Vincent Ahehehinnou. Influenced by Otis Redding and James Brown, Ahehehinnou specialized in soul and funk. "James Brown," he would later say "had more influence on our music than Fela". Not all listeners will agree on the proportions, but both influences are obvious on the band’s first LP. Recorded in 1973, it is a collection of Ahehehinnou's afrobeat compositions. He was given top billing: The album cover depicts him in black and white, and the bold yellow frame around the picture bears the words "Ahehehinnou Vincent & Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou Dahomey". (In 2011 Analog Africa reissued this album in an amended form as The First Album. Because the original recordings were marred by background noise, the band was ordered to re-record the entire album, which they did. The 1973 issue features performances from the re- recordings. The 2011 reissue uses two performances from the first recordings, and two from the re-recordings. I'm not sure why the entirety of both versions of the album weren't used, since both could have fit on one disc, but it's a stellar release anyway.)

To hear Ahehehinnou explain it, they were a band dedicated to entertaining their audience, not a band pursuing a musical vision. Maybe that is what makes them so excellent. I like grandiose artistic aspirations as much as anyone, but I'll be the first to admit that these aspirations can be a path to disaster. Why not make music specifically intended to make people happy? Because different audiences, in different regions and different venues, had different demands, this band pursued excellence in a number of styles. If you are a Western listener, you will recognize the funk right away. Among the less familiar styles, you'll hear Soukous, a kind of jubilant, guitar-based Congolese rumba. You'll also hear Sato and Sakpata rhythms. Sato, which is also the name of the tall drum used to play it, is a Vodoun rhythm used to commemorate the dead. It's anything but morbid. Listen to "Gan Tche Kpo" and "Se Ba Ho" to hear this band's mastery of Sato. Sakpata, which is Fon for "god of the earth", can be heard as the elusive rhythmic architecture of songs like "Mi Ni Non Kpo". The band regularly backed up other artists, as well, and was in-demand and highly regarded. Even now, to a 2013 listener with unprecedented access to wildly diverse musical sources, the diversity on display in this band's repertoire is astounding.

What remains consistent is disciplined, energetic performance. The horns are sharply in the pocket, the bass rumbles and syncopates, the percussion cycles and drives. In a band as well-practiced as this band apparently was, there's a danger of becoming stale, a zero-sum fight between technical precision and the energetic spontaneity that makes music like this really move. On their recordings, there is no evidence that the Orchestre Poly-Rythmo ever had to choose one over the other.

T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou - Volume 9: Reconciliation After Melome made Papillon his right-hand-man, Adissa began circumventing Melome’s authority and giving more power to Papillon. Ahehehinnou stood up for Melome, and Adissa pressured him out of the band. While Ahehehinnou seems to have kept the specifics a secret, it appears to have been some kind of threat. It was 1978 when he left the band, a decade after his recruitment. The band united in 1981 to make the Reconciliation album. Papillon died as the record was being mixed. Leopold Yehoussi died soon after. Remaining members revisited their repertoire on 2007’s Nouvelle Formule and a (probably) final release, Cotonou Club, appeared in 2011 with Ahehehinnou on lead vocals. Melome died in late 2012. The recordings this band left behind will never sound stale.

Note: For the quotes and background information in this write-up, I'm indebted (and grateful) to the authors of the liner notes that accompany the six Poly-Rythmo releases available in the US. The good people at the Soundway, Analog Africa and Popular African Music labels have preserved this great band's music as well their history, and those compilations have obviously been prepared with a great deal of care and passion. If you're interested in this band (and you should be!) track down any of these compilations:

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

ERYKAH BADU: New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)

Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) "Because she's self-righteous and she sucks." That's how someone once tried to explain it to me. By "it" I mean this rather unfamiliar concept of not liking Erykah Badu. What series of embittering personal tragedies have to befall someone before that person is incapable of liking Erykah Badu? And, anyway, what's this "self-righteous" business? Isn't calling someone self-righteous just a way to shame that person for believing in things? This is why people can love the Smiths but hate U2. There's an earnestness-threshold across which musicians transgress at their own peril. Your credibility vanishes when your irony does, I guess. But who needs credibility? When you make music, or art of any kind, you can find ways to get away with being preachy. That is, you can have a message without sacrificing the quality of your art. You might sacrifice your hipness-cred or your cool, but you don't need those things. Lou Reed and The Strokes can have them.

And why NOT preach? There are things, often uncomfortable things, people might need to hear. (I'm referring here to things beyond the usual pop-music tropes like "Baby, let's have sex," and "We're gonna party tonight," and "You broke my heart and now I'm drunk'n'sad," and "Let's stick it to the man with our guitars but never define who 'the man' is, exactly, because really, we work for him".) We live in a tangled mess of frayed wires and sometimes we are implicated in the things that, when we proclaim our senses of righteous indignation, we oppose with no dearth of rage. Sometimes what we're shouting down is also what we're standing on. It's not fun to hunker down and think on this kind of stuff, though.

Your dog won't take his medicine unless you wrap it in bacon, right? So artists can wrap those uncomfortable thoughts and observations in bacon. Yeah, the jaded and the cool will fling their noses skyward no matter how flavorful your aesthetic vessel is, but screw 'em. Shake the dust from your shoes. A prophet is never respected in the prophet's own town, nor is a prophet respected in trendy music 'zines.

Erykah Badu probably isn't a prophet, but she has a unique and idiosyncratic worldview worth listening to. I think you should discover it on your own and (if you feel so compelled) think on the bitter pill she's giving you here. It's my job to sell you on the bacon. 

"Here" is her 2008 album New Amerykah Part One. There is a Part Two, but you should start here. (Numerical order, silly.) 4th Wold War is one of those album-length artistic statements people generally associate with the era of Pink Floyd and Yes. Maybe Frank Zappa is a better comparison. Like Zappa's virtuoso, fun-house quirk, Badu creates her own world here. If you've heard any of her music before, you know already that her voice is a versatile instrument employed with a ferocious sense of play. It's the kind of instrument that can get lost in tepid musical settings. Thankfully, Erykah Badu has consistently avoided the lazy backslide into neo-soul cliches that could have made her a ready-for-primetime player.

Badu's plan of action here is apparent from the outset. This is a hip-hop/soul hybrid leaning confidently toward the former via sampling, references, and radical social consciousness. On the first track, RAMP's "American Promise" is sampled and mutated into "Amerykhan Promise", a surreal slab of theatrical funk, complete with pitch-shifted voices chattering in a battle of wills. (It's natural to be reminded of Parliament, here.)  This re-purposing continues throughout, in a series of hallucinatory underground hip-hop tracks.

Madlib (who should be pretty familiar to our regular readers) contributes two particularly great sample-deep tracks. "The Healer/Hip-Hop" lopes slow on a sample from Yamasuki's Le monde fabuleux des Yamasuki and "My People" is an interpretive scat cover of an Eddie Kendricks song. These beats are exactly the sort you might hear under a faded MF DOOM verse, but I love hearing them used by a singer instead of a rapper. In 2012, Madlib's productions would back up a soul singer for an entire album: Check out the terrific Seeds by Georgia Anne Muldrow, who also collaborates on one track here here. That track, "Master Teacher", is a rousing number, provocative not only in it's lyric, but also in it's bold sampling of a familiar voice. Curtis Mayfield is such an unassailable legend that it's kind of daring to use him the way he's used here. He's obviously recognizable and his voice is brutally chopped up into a hammering monosyllable. Conceptually, this might have something to do with a desire to continue Mayfield's project of spiritually charged calls for public action and shared responsibility. Musically, it's an odd and unrelenting earworm.

There's some dark territory here. "The Cell" and "Twinkle" are particularly menacing. The former charges and churns through a hell night of urban violence, and the latter is a trip through the wires of the Cyberbadu's assimilated robo-brain. Trust me on this. "Telephone" pays reverent tribute to Detroit's J Dilla, one of about 10,000 songs to do this. (Badu, whose awesome "Didn't Cha Know" was co-written and produced by Dilla, seems like someone in a meaningful position to pay respects, and her tribute is among the most sincere, along with "Can't Stop This" on the Roots' Game Theory).

The record ends with the secret ingredient "Honey", which lightens the mood with a buoyant, hard-knocking beat and syncopated synth squelches. It's one of the stronger performances here, and definitely the most accessible song. You could view it as a cop-out unit-shifter, tacked on at the last minute as sales insurance, but I think it's fitting that the record ends with a sweet and playful love song. This is an album focused on the pestilences of racism, violence, drugs and death. It is not, however, a black-lipstick slog through a list of dark topics by a self-conscious Serious Artist. For all the time Badu spends pointing out (however obliquely) terrifying things in our world, she's no nihilist. These lyrics regularly suggest a potential for hope, or maybe a desperation for it. During "Soldier", Badu expresses solidarity with the victims of hurricane Katrina, the Nation of Islam, and anyone pushed around by corrupt police officers. This might sound cynical, but she assures us "If you think about turning back, I got the shotgun on your back" as if she's a 21st-Century Harriet Tubman. She won't let you give up. Man, a shotgun is a funny way to show love, but it makes perfect sense here. Cowardice is unacceptable.

This album is filled with dark corners, mystery and details that show themselves only on repeat listens. If the lyrics were gibberish, I'd still enjoy the hell out of it, but I'm glad that Erykah Badu is so willing to be principled and even "self-righteous".

Sunday, June 9, 2013


The National - Boxer Moping guitar-rock is rarely something I seek out. Because it's so easy do, and because an audience is so easy to find (people eat this stuff UP!), the world is overstuffed with REM leftovers.

I adore the moping guitar-rock made by The National, however. And I think I like them for the same reasons you do: The National's music accomplishes something not often seen in pop music. It creates a vivid, uniquely unflinching  picture of adulthood. Instead of coasting on the fumes of howling libido and lingering teen rage, this band brood over the uncomfortable fit of grown-up compromise.

My favorite example on Boxer is the single "Mistaken for Strangers". On the wings of a gasping, groaning guitar duet and an intricate drum stomp that gives the song a level of propulsion not normally heard at such a slow tempo, this song depicts that desperate, vacant life you get handed once you finally buy your first suit and start turning into that cynical nobody "passing the night under the silvery, silvery Citibank lights". Angels don't want to watch over you, the song says. Probably because you're so empty and inauthentic.

Elsewhere, the narrators of "Green Gloves" and "Slow Show" miss their old friends ("Hope they're staying glued together/I have arms for them,") and stand awkwardly at the punchbowl, too paralyzed by regret to socialize normally. Relationships are passive-aggressive, self-doubt is suffocatingly present. Instrumental flourishes like harmoniums and french horns are used to augment certain songs, and the effect is always to deepen the sad-sack musical sigh. Drummer Bryan Devendorf holds back when he needs to, often entering a song only when it is well underway to inject a raging bitterness that turns the maudlin, plucked guitars and pianos a seething bite. The National are pretty conservative, musically. Imagine Bruce Springsteen without the pandering, slogans and gospel-of-rock evangelism and you're not far off. It's good to see people using the same old wheel unusually well rather than re-inventing it.

Singer Matt Beringer is so convincingly exhausted and pitiful with regret that you could almost believe he was born in a cubicle, already middle-aged, and went straight to work preparing for an endless string of soul-sucking performance reviews. If that description makes it sound like Boxer is a chore to listen to, you should know that it's ultimately uplifting. After his awkward punchbowl hem-haw, the narrator in "Slow Show" hurries home to a girl he dreamed about for 29 before he met her (in a very-pretty reference to an earlier National song.) This necktied thing we grow into is staid, but not lonely.