Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou is arguably West Africa’s best-kept secret. Their output, both in quantity and quality, was astonishing. During several trips to Benin Analog Africa managed to collect roughly 500 songs which Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou had recorded between 1970 and 1983.
The cultural and spiritual riches of traditional Beninese music had an immense impact on the sound of Benin’s modern music. Benin is the birthplace of the Vodun religion (also Vodoun, or, as it is known in the West, Voodoo) and involves the worship of some 250 sacred divinities. The rituals used to pay tributes to those divinities are always backed by music. The majority of the complex poly-rhythms of the vodun are still more or less secret and difficult to decipher, even for an accomplished musician. Anthropologists and ethnomusicologists agree that this religion constitutes the principal ‘cultural bridge’ between Africa and all its Diasporas of the New World and in a reflection of the power and influence of these sounds many of the complex rhythms were to have a profound impact on the other side of the Atlantic on rhythms as popular as Blues, Jazz, Cuban and Brazilian music.
Two Vodun rhythms dominate the music of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo: Sato, an amazing, energetic rhythm performed using an immense vertical drum, and Sakpata, a rhythm dedicated to the divinity who protects people from smallpox. Both rhythms are represented here mixed in with Funk, Soul, crazy organ sounds and psychedelic guitar riffs. Bandleader Melome Clement explains: “Sato is a traditional rhythm derived from Vodun. It is used in Benin during annual rituals in memory of the dead; you can’t just play Sato at any given time. Sato is also the name of a drum which is used during the ceremonies. It’s huge: about 175 centimeters high. The drummers, armed with sticks, dance around it and hit it all at the same time. It’s very coordinated. The Sato drummers are backed by an orchestra of smaller drums and shakers. We also did some modern versions of a Vodoun rhythm called Sakpata. ‘Mi Ni Non Kpo’ and ‘Houi Djein Na Da’ are Sakpatas, which in Fon means ‘god of the Earth’.”