Live: Orchestre Poly-Rythmo Give A Master Class In Percussion At Central Park


Orchestre Poly-Rythmo w/SMOD
Central Park SummerStage
Sunday, July 22

Better than: Air conditioning in a heat wave.

There’s a shopping list of fine pop bands from throughout the African continent listed on one page of drumming major John Miller Chernoff’s esteemed 1979 ethnographic study African Rhythm and African Sensibility. He names several acts that have now been recognized in the West for quite some time, but somehow Benin’s Orchestre Poly-Rythmo—whose full name at that time translated as the “Poly-Rhythmic Orchestra of Cotonou,” after its home city in the small West African nation—is the sole group described with an adjective: “marvelous.” The mention didn’t do them much good at the time (Poly-Rythmo would disband within a decade, reeling from personnel losses as well as the independent nation’s ’80s lurch toward dictatorship), but as advance notice of the band that hit Central Park SummerStage yesterday, it might be seen as a message of assurance reaching across generations.

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo is as much a world-class band now, in reconstituted form (four members in the Central Park troupe were cofounders), as they were then, when hitmaking made them the pride of their nation and a draw in neighboring Nigeria, Ghana and the Congo. (Those countries, it bears repeating, had no shortage of renowned superstars.) An emphasis on excellent musicianship may have always outstripped their personal identity, though; they named themselves “poly-rythmo” not merely because their grooves are polyrthymic, but rather, because they were adept at a diaspora’s worth of styles from Afrobeat to Cuban and Congolese rumba. What distinguished their ’70s discs—compilations of which generated the interest for the reunited band’s first European tour in 2007—was a sizable adherence to the fuzzed-out psychedelia of the period, the play of bloozy James Brownian funk guitar against sun-parched horn charts.

The psychedelics may be downplayed on Cotonou Club, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo’s gorgeous 2011 album, but the Central Park set proved that one would need to be beholden to a kind of one-dimensionality Poly-Rythmo has always sidestepped in order to hold that against them. (And besides, you’d have been a minority amid the fleet-footed crowd, onboard seemingly from the moment vocalist Cosme Anago launched into “Ne te fâche pas.”) The band clearly knows where its roots are; it began and ended the show with a percussion processional that cast each member as a ritualistic priest, a nod to the primordial vodou rhythms indigenous to Benin. In between it was all urban, and, to these ears, subtly Caribbean. Rumba of the Central African variety gave way to Latinate funk, which then cleared the way for a rousing Africanized version of Haitian compas. The entire band could easily give a master class in the propulsive interweave of percussion: Hand-drummer Celestin Honfo and trap-drummer Roland Mélomé were doing the heaviest lifting, while the singers and hornplayers doubled on myriad “little instruments” from cowbell and indigenous castenets up to shekere.

By the time Poly-Rythmo had 1) gotten comfy with a clavé rhythm that could’ve booked safe passage from Havana to Miami, and 2) consistently unfurled bass, guitar and keyboard lines that exhibited raucousness despite fluid edges, it was obvious that the familiarity had disarmed the crowd to some degree. Though cofounding lead singer Vincent Ahehehinnou was both engaging and apologetic in his limited English, it wasn’t until later that I realized he hadn’t tried to disclose what the song lyrics (sung in Fon, Yoruba and French) meant. Tellingly, that didn’t keep him from getting the crowd to sing along on more than one occasion. Given the intensity in the audience, it felt like they could have gotten away with just about anything.

Critical bias: I’m still pulling for Afropop to be the next big thing… again.

Random notebook dump: Caught only the closing song of SMOD, the opening act, but dug the way the Malian MC and acoustic guitar trio (guitarist is Amadou & Mariam’s son Samoli Bagayoko) spiked a dancehall-ready finale with the lilt of Chic’s “Good Times”.

Set list:
Ne te fâche pas
Chéri Coco
Belle Afrique
Ma vie
Gbeti Madjro
Ou c’est lui ou c’est moi

Hwe Twe Houn