I think I hit the jackpot this week. Lately I’ve found myself repeating the phrase, “…and I’m not usually a big fan of compilations…” But in the last few weeks I’ve been coming in contact with one amazing comp after another. This one is “Legends of Benin”, on the same label that put out the already classic “African Scream Contest”. And honestly, I am not
a fan of compilations, but when it comes to obscure bands these powerhouse comps can be the doorway to an amazing journey.
This disc is shared between four different acts—Gnonnas Pedro, Antoine Dougbé, El Rego et Ses Commandos, and Honoré Avolonto. Each group brings to the table their own blend of sandy, sunny dancefloor jams. Gnonnas Pedro’s tracks travel into raw realms, rife with sandy disco floors and the peoples just getting along to the music. His signature seems to be this Afro-Latin iteration, with electric guitars carrying heavy funk overtones, offset by superbly staccato Latin percussion and rhythm. His seven-plus minute jam “La Musica En Vérité” plays more like a ballad or travel through a strange land. The rhythm is still buried in another world, but the song makes me want to lie down rather than dance—fortunately I will be dreaming of dancing in a dream in which I am also dancing.
Honoré Avolonto only has two tracks on the disc, but they’re both brickhouse booty-shakers. Whereas his counterparts on this compilation lean toward a lot of repetitive vocals and harmonies, this guy appears to be giving us a pretty good earful, beautifully singing in a punctuated style over the top of the fast-moving rhythms on the track “Na Mi Do Gbé Hué Nu”. Horns dominate a lot of the music here and again, don’t hesitate to dance. Of the two of his on this disc, I’m heavily favoring the longer, “Tin Lin Non”. It finishes in almost nine minutes and goes from verse to verse without relenting, bringing in minute after minute of unfaltering funk, all of course dipped in the dust of 1970s Benin. The relatively shorter tracks from El Rego Et Ses Commandos sound to me to be written with what seem to me to be more of a pop sensibility. With this in mind, these are some seriously addictive joints. “Legends of Benin” has four tracks from this group and though they’re short, this scarcity actually works to highlight the poignancy of the riffs and hooks. Claves keep a syncopated rhythm under seriously infectious vocal iterations and gentle electric guitars. This brings me to mention the general sweetness of the sound of electric guitars on afro and reggae-tinged recordings from the 1960s and 70s—something I’m sure other folks have noticed and I’m sure there is a reasonable explanation for. In any case, the sound is warm and sweet. El Rego Et Ses Commandos could have cut it among any of the American funk exploders of the 1970’s, but I’m glad they’ve been saved from the ensuing clichés, and instead preserved in the now classic music culture of Benin.
Of all the music and artists involved in this compilation, the most difficult for me to describe is Antoine Dougbé. His style is described as a ‘Afro cavacha’, a mixture of Congolese rhumba, latin music, and vodoun rhythm. So that may mean as little to you as it does to me, but in case you want to research it, there it is. In a blind taste-test, though, the music is every bit as danceable as the other acts on “Legends of Benin”, though it’s clear that Dougbé is moving in a distinctly different direction. His rhythms are more complex, and he appears to cover a wider range of styles, breaking out some very fast dance pieces with frequent vocal repetitions, and then also turning out a near-reggae number, slow and offbeat. Horns and guitars dominate (next to the rhythm of course, without which nothing
would be possible in the Benin musical realm), but some of the vocals also clearly carry purpose. Worth mentioning is the absolutely stellar track “Kovito Gbe De Towe”, on which Dougbé has so masterfully inserted what my friends and I used to call a ‘breakdown’, a point at which the energy in the song appears to break but also magically rebuild upon itself to somewhere around double the size of before. It’s the one track on this disc that will be repeated more than anything else.
I’ll say again, I am not into compilations. For the most part, I find them a waste of time—I’d typically rather listen to full-length LP, CD or cassette, music written by the same artist or artists. But in this case I feel I can make an exception. “Legends of Benin” has introduced me to four amazing artists whom I would have never come in contact with otherwise. The four acts are complimentary of each other, and obviously all of this music is tied to an important period in a seldom-visited place in the global music scene. Go buy this today. You will want to make a copy for the car right away too, because “Legends of Benin” also happens to be ultimate driving music. 10/10 -- Michael Jantz (15 July, 2009)