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Benin legend Orchestre Poly-Rythmo premieres 'Pardon'

March 9, 2011 |  7:19 am

If you didn't know any better, you might easily mistake Orchestre Poly-Rythmo's "Cotonou Club," for a long-lost gem from the legendary Benin band's 1970s heyday.

In a Wax Poetics interview last year, frontman Vincent Ahehehinnou described his 11-piece outfit as a "variety band," meaning one without a "fixed vision ... [and] very open to any kind of musical influence and open to the cultural world." Listening to their first album together in more than two decades, one immediately gleans how easily they glide from dazzling afro-beat grooves, to James Brown-inspired funk breakdowns, to Afro-Cuban rhythms. The sound is diverse but never diffuse, a tropical rainfall of horns, ancestral drums, psychedelic organs and soulful stentorian voices.

With a backstory more suited to a biopic than a blog post, the Orchestre fused traditional Vodun rhythms to the afro-beat emanating from neighboring Nigeria, and the afro-sheen funk flowing across the Atlantic. Founded in the late '60s and eventually swelling to 16 members, the band become famous in Benin, rocking festivals across the continent and earning plaudits from Fela Kuti and "Soul Makossa" mastermind Manu Dibango.

By 1977, they were so massive that the Benin Ministry of Culture intervened to ensure that the Orchestre would represent the county in the 1977 FESTAC (much to the government's chagrin, the band had placed third in a battle of the bands). Yet when it came time for them to leave for the festival, a coup struck the palace, forcing the ministry to charter a special bus for them to escape to Lagos, Nigeria, the site of the massive pan-African party.

The Orchestre held down a residency at the fabled Zenith nightclub in Cotonou, a major international port throughout the 1970s, famously playing shows from 10 p.m. until the break of dawn. Somehow, they managed to find time to record roughly 50 full-length LPs and hundreds of 45s, which have recently received a second life thanks to attention from masterful reissue houses Soundway and Analog Africa. 

Reunited since 2009, next month's Strut Records-released "Cotonou Club" finds the Orchestre in rare vintage: unspooling dazzling grooves, interlocking harmonies, and organ lines that conjure form-fitting polyester glory days. Pop & Hiss is premiering "Pardon" (even if thanks is probably a more appropriate gesture).

MP3 Download (Pop & Hiss premiere): Orchestre Poly-Rythmo's "Pardon"

-- Jeff Weiss