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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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: