When I walk into the Orchestre's Paris hotel on the day of their European debut, Vincent Ahehehinnou greets me. He is the James Brown fan recruited in 1968 to "heat up" gigs with the unhinged screams and growling soul voice you can hear on tracks such as "Les Djos", alongside more traditional singers. He is also, a woman from their French label tells me later, a "rebel", who left the band in 1978 as its recording career wound down. The label had to insist on his presence in the bolstered, all-star version of the band here on Sunday.
Ahehehinnou is suave in a cream roll-neck sweater, and quietly intelligent. You can imagine the younger man from whom, it's been recalled, no one's girlfriend was safe. "The goal was to match the musical realities from Europe and America," he recalls of the Orchestre in 1968. "In Benin, that made us stand out. We were listening to James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Françoise Hardy, Charles Aznavour. The Beatles, of course. We felt freedom from African music, but kept the interesting parts. And in Benin, the interesting part is voodoo. It's very rich as a culture and cult, with nice, proper sounds – bells, tamtams, percussion. There's no groove like the voodoo groove anywhere else. We thought, 'Why shouldn't we make that our rock'n'roll?' Modernising voodoo ceremonial rhythms such as sakpata with rock'n'roll, itself grown partly from New Orleans jazz with its origins in the voodoo brought by Benin slaves, not only closed a historic circle; Ahehehinnou believes it naturally predated Fela Kuti's continent-shaking Afro-beat. Long, hypnotic, polyrhythmic grooves by the drummer Yehouessi Leopold, and daring guitar lines by Bernard "Papillon" Zoundegnon that would give Western post-punk and psychedelic maestros pause, were the Poly-Rythmo heart-beat. Listen to the 10-minute "Ne Te Faches Pas" on The Kings of Benin Urban Groove, and marvel. Such music was forged at a Cotonou club the band created, the Zenith.
"Still today, all our fans from the '60s and '70s are asking us to create another venue like that," Ahehehinnou says. "The Zenith was the only place for us to perform in front of a mainstream Benin audience. It was quite basic – a stage, a bar, 500 capacity. But when there were 500 inside, there were 2000 outside to hear the music, because they couldn't afford the ticket. People were dancing till they could do this to their clothes... " He mimics whipping a shirt off, to wring the sweat out. "Now, the Zenith is just a bar. When we take people back there, they feel hurt that there's no feeling left any more, and they can't relive the fantasies of their youth. The Zenith went down because of the revolution."
Ahehehinnou's urbane mood darkens with anger. "After the revolution [when Mathieu Kerekou's regime, installed in 1972, began totalitarian, Marxist-Leninist inspired oppression in 1975], we were not allowed to play after 11pm on weekdays. And when the people came out of the venue, the police were waiting for them. If they picked you up outside a nightclub, they would say you were imperialist and anti-revolutionary! People were forbidden to hang out in the dark. They were disappointed and desperate, and didn't even want to step out of their house any more. We feel bitter."
Typically for Africa then, Poly- Rythmo were made the national orchestra by the new regime, and played its patriotic songs daily at the presidential palace. But even on a state-sponsored trip to Libya, trouble found them. "At the Libyan airport, the organiser said because we were musicians we were drug addicts. They took us to the third floor of the airport to check everything. Then they threw our instruments through the windows. And the government didn't replace them. So it became harder and harder to play."
Most of their Cotonou contemporaries were lured to Europe long before. Benin's musical monarchs never followed. "Poly-Rythmo is deeply rooted in Benin's culture. By leaving, we'd be letting the "company" down. We were a band, all in one. Either we left or stayed, together. We were supposed to go to Paris. But our producer felt we would never come back, and said no. Why would we go like all the others to Europe to get recognition, when we were already recognised and famous in Benin? Why would we have to prove ourselves there?"
In February 1990, democracy returned to Benin (with Kerekou and co. still in charge, naturally, till 2006). Ahehehinnou had already left the Orchestre, in sad, obscure circumstances. In 1982, their star guitarist Papillon died. In 1990, drummer Leopold, too. "Papillon was a very inspiring person," Ahehehinnou says simply. "The music we're playing today is thanks to him. He was our genius. We lost a lot of people to illness in this Orchestre. Two good singers, too. Papillon's place is still vacant now."
So will I feel a hole, I ask, when I see you play tonight? "No," he says, brightening. "We've got two guitarists replacing him. There won't be any emptiness. It's the same band you'll see tonight."
Ahehehinnou, the patriot who has never needed Western approval, is still delighted with this late turn in their fortunes. "When our fans in Benin heard we were going to Europe, they cried with joy."
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Orchestre Poly-Rythmo play the Barbican, London on Sunday. 'The Kings of Benin Urban Groove 1972-80' is reissued on Soundway this week. Another compilation, 'Echos Hypnotiques' is out on 26 October on Analog Africa
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