Friday, December 31, 2010
Legends of Benin, Legends of Angola
What an admirable man Samy Ben Redjeb is. He appears to spend his time travelling round Africa putting together compilations of lost musical traditions, two examples of which I’ve been greatly enjoying, namely, Legends of Benin: Afro-Funk, Cavacha, Agbadja, Afro-Beat, and Angola Soundtrack: The Unique Sound of Luanda 1968-1976. Gnonnas Pedro et Ses Dadjes, El Rego et Ses Commandos, Honoré Avolonto et l’Orchestre PolyRythmo, Os Bongos, N’Goma Jazz, Jovens do Prenda: how many of these musicians will anyone outside Africa ever have heard of? One point of reference at least for Europeans will be the Cuban influence, which seems to have been continentally ubiquitous, and of which Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab are probably the best-known example, and as recently revisited by the Afrocubism project (I was at their gig in London the other week). But then, I also read, Benin’s west coast is home to a large Brazilian community, descendants of freed slaves who brought the influence of samba and French chanson back with them. So there’s all manner of cross-fertilisation going on. Quite apart from how good the music is on these albums, the booklets that come with the albums are fascinating documents, full of interviews with the musicians and period photos (the trousers! the shirts! the haircuts!).
Of the Beninois musician Antoine Dougbé, one of whose publicity photos shows him posing in front of an eminently sensible-looking 70s hatchback with a sickle and machete, we read:
[his] father had been a very powerful and feared Vodun Priest (...) Dougbé had learned all the secrets from him and was a serious ritual of Vodun rituals and he had used his powers on different occasions. You really had to make sure there wasn’t the slightest misunderstanding with him. (...) I’ve been to his house many times to seek protection. He would rub oils all over your body, make you swallow bizarre stuff and he would give you protective ‘gris gris’ (charms), which you were always supposed to carry with you.
As for El Rego, we read: ‘The best time to catch El Rego [these days] is on Tuesday mornings, when he makes his weekly visit to collect his earnings from his Nigerian prostitutes at Le Playboy.’
The liner notes for the Angolan album have a darker edge to them. ‘Independence meant a lot to us, we were expecting a new era, a new energy’, says Jovens do Prenda’s guitarist, ‘but instead we received an endless war.’ I’m guessing the musical pickings for the years 1975-2002 are a lot thinner, sadly (consider the fate of David Zé, one of the featured musicians here, murdered in 1977).
Youtube clip features Honoré Avolonto of Benin’s thoroughly addictive ‘Na Mi Do Gbé Hué Nu’. Avolonto was a leading light in the Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo de Cotonou, several of whose albums I believe are also available on Analog Africa. Avolonto was ‘surprised that a foreigner might be interested in his music’, writes Samy Ben Redjeb of his meetings with him (ps: HA is not dead, despite the colourful album cover at the top of this post). Everyone should buy these wonderful albums.