Rating:Benin’s legendary Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou was a groundbreaking African funk/rock/soul outfit whose prodigious output totaled roughly 500 songs recorded between 1969 and 1983. Utilizing both traditional African polyrhythms and the new, exciting sounds of such luminaries as James Brown and Jimi Hendrix, the band—more of a collective, really, with an often-shifting lineup of musicians—piled fuzzy guitars, gurgling organs and sharp-edged horns on top of a bed of hypnotic percussion and pulsing bass. The whole stew proved irresistibly vivacious, and if some of the tracks were almost field-recording quality, well, the band’s surging energy was (usually) able to overcome the technical limitations of the time.
The fine, fine label Analog Africa has been collecting, cleaning up and re-releasing selections from the Orchestre’s massive back catalog since 2008. The Voudoun Effect brought the band to the attention of many western ears for the first time with 14 fiery tracks, and the following year’s Echoes Hypnotiques saw the release of another 14. Now we have Volume 3 in the series, The Skeletal Essences of Afro-Funk. It’s an outstanding collection, both for listeners familiar with the genre as well as newcomers looking for something fresh.
Fourteen seems to be a favorite number over at Analog Africa; this set contains the same number of tracks. Clocking in at well over an hour, the songs show a refreshing diversity of range, though it’s true that they tend to be energetic, uptempo, celebratory numbers. There are a few slower songs here, but nothing resembling a ballad, and the relentless percussion remains present throughout.
Lead track “Ne Rien Voir, Dire, Entendre” is one of the more downtempo tunes, with an off-kilter rhythm that takes a little getting used to. Follow-up track “Houzou Houzou Wa” is a little easier to absorb, with its skronking horns and funky guitar, but not until the third song, “Adjro Mi,” does the band really lock into a groove and milk it. This is when the band shines brightest; the six-minute-plus “Adjiro Mi” combines fluid guitar picking, snaky bassline and call-and-response vocals to create a groove deep enough to drown in. If you don’t care for this, it’s probably best to switch off the record and find something else. After that, the band nails a string of smoking-hot tunes, from the keyboard-heavy “Karateka” to the shuffling funk of “Akoue We Gni Gan” to the urgent, multi-part “A O O Ida” (complete with James Brown-style shrieks toward the end).
Especially successful are the longer songs. “N’Goua” is another six-minute masterpiece, a midtempo tune whose horns float above the repeating guitar/bass lick and sometimes join it in unison. The vocals here are especially soulful—the band switched up musicians and vocalists often, and even with the enclosed booklet it’s difficult to tell who sings what. “Ecoute Ma Melodie” is another standout, and at 7:27 the longest song here, as well as one of the few sung in a European language. Moving from a drum-and-horn opening to an almost ska-inflected groove, “Ecoute Ma Melodie” is a fine climax to the record, followed only by the downtempo (really!) denouement of “Min We Tun So.”
Not all the news is good. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo recorded in a time and place where the facilities were hardly state of the art, and this means that many of these tracks suffer from less-than-stellar production. The sound is often tinny, at times unintentionally distorted. Reportedly, some songs were recorded on a reel-to-reel tape player with only two microphones—or even just one. This does lend an undeniable “live” feel of excitement and rawness—the horns occasionally crack on a note—and overall, the effect is successful far more often than not. But this is very much a subjective response, and some listeners accustomed to today’s pristine recording standards may have difficulty adjusting.
That would be a shame, because this album smokes, and does so in a way different from most of what’s out there these days, including the current Afro-pop and Afro-funk. With Fela Kuti receiving quite appropriate recognition for his contributions to African music, it’s a shame that pioneering bands like Orchstre Poly-Rythmo have yet to reach an equally wide audience. That should change. With any luck, this will be the record to change it.