West African funk band mounts stunning comeback

COTONOU - They were huge in the early 1970s, playing alongside some of the greatest names in African music, then faded into obscurity after a communist revolution destroyed nightlife in their homeland.

Many in the tiny west African country of Benin even thought most of the members had died but the Orchestre Polyrythmo de Cotonou is enjoying a remarkable comeback.

The band's renaissance has been compared to the Buena Vista Social Club, the veteran Cuban musicians rediscovered in the 1990s who were the subject of a hit documentary film and successful album.

Since their revival - helped by a young French journalist - the Orchestre Polyrythmo de Cotonou has performed in Barcelona, Paris, New York and at the prestigious Barbican in London.

The New York Times has even said they were "on the very short list of the world's greatest funk bands".

"We been all over the world," lead singer Vincent Aehehinnou told AFP. "The only place for us to discover is Asia." - Marxism and Khadafi

The orchestra was formed in 1968 and played in clubs across West Africa, lining up alongside the likes of South Africa's Myriam Makeba and the legendary father of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti of Nigeria.

They also recorded at a frantic pace, churning out an astonishing 400 albums in 10 years, but political turmoil cut short their success.

In 1972, military general Mathieu Kerekou seized power in Benin, one of many coups in west Africa after the dismantling of colonialism in the early 1960s.

From 1974, Kerekou rolled out rigid Marxist policies that gradually led to the closure of nightclubs and music halls across the former French colony, which had been famous for its vibrant nightlife.

Dictatorships elsewhere in Africa also contributed to the band's demise, notably that of Muammar Khadafi in Libya.

While touring Libya in 1982, the authorities accused band members of possessing narcotics and destroyed their instruments one-by-one, apparently in a search for drugs.

They returned to Cotonou devastated and fell further into obscurity.

A chance discovery

French journalist Elodie Maillot was preparing for a trip to Benin in 2007 when she came across some old vinyls from the band in the record library at Radio France Internationale in Paris.

Once in Cotonou, she began investigating.

"I made a quick tour of the clubs that remained... and when I asked questions about Polyrythmo people answered, 'We haven't seen them in years... They are probably dead'," she recalled.

Maillot then travelled to the town of Abomey, where various local bands were performing to celebrate the anniversary of Benin's independence.

"There, at nearly 2:00 am, they went on stage and started playing 'Angelina,' a song that I'm a fan of," she said.

Despite the poor sound quality and clear lack of rehearsal, Polyrythmo still had the funk - and the crowd went wild.

She interviewed band members and returned to Paris to broadcast a story about them. Before leaving Benin, she promised to try to help them achieve their dream of playing in France.

Funk, blues and voodoo

No promoter was prepared to take on the financial risk and logistical hassles of bringing 11 west African musicians to Europe for a concert.

None of them had passports and they had hardly performed together for more than three decades.

So, Maillot did it all herself, securing a gig at France's Villette Jazz Festival and returning to Benin to help get the band to France.

Arriving in Paris for the first time in 2009 "was unbelievable", said Aehehinnou. "It was a dream come true." In 2011, Polyrhythmo released an album called "Cotonou Club", which included prominent guest performances from two members of Scottish rockers Franz Ferdinand and Angelique Kidjo of Benin.

Lately, they have been rehearsing two to three times per week, typically gathering at a private home in Cotonou to refine their sound.

Drifting out from under a tin roof is funk blended with soul, blues, latin notes and the occasional voodoo chant - a nod to a form of worship which is still powerful in their home country.

Fisherman, salesman... musician

Aehehinnou said the group was currently waiting to confirm the dates for their next international tour.

He was animated talking about the band's early success, including the release of their 1968 hit "Gbeti Madjro" as well as a performance at the Africa shrine, Fela Kuti's famed music hall in Nigeria's largest city, Lagos.

Band members may miss the days when they first found success, playing in bustling clubs each weekend in Cotonou and recording an album or two each week.

But music isn't the only thing they do. When they're not rehearsing or performing, band members can still be found working as fishermen or selling satellite dishes.

Previously in 1960s and 70s, Polyrythmo could only dream of one day performing anywhere outside of Africa. Now they can travel the world.