West African funk band mounts stunning comeback

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.

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