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T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo
Afro-Funk Brian Coney , December 6th, 2022 08:02

An essential compilation from one of Benin's leading groups, formed in 1968

When they reformed for their first-ever European tour in 2009, Benin’s T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo underscored their status as one of the all-time greats of West African music. Formed in 1968 by bandleader Clément Mélomé, their rare alchemy of scorched funk and driving Afrobeat didn’t just defy a repressive political system; across fifty studio albums, it revealed a group infinitely worthy of the world stage. Released via Benin label Albarika Store, which is currently in the capable hands of Acid Jazz, Afro-Funk is a lean and supreme compilation, and a definitive point of entry for the West African shapeshifters.

In 1972, four years after originally forming as Orchestre Poly-Disco, the group emerged against the backdrop of dictator Mathieu Kérékou’s rise to power. He would later embrace democracy but Kérékou’s plans for Benin – known as Dahomey until 1975 -–was not one conducive to radical self-expression. Countering curfews and other government measures stunting musical freedom such as encouraging indigenous folk music, T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo became a symbol of creative resilience in their hometown of Cotonou and beyond. Inspired by both traditional rhythms and sounds they were hearing in neighbouring Lagos, they proved that past and future could commune to become something else completely.

Selected from recordings from the late 1960s to the early ‘80s, Afro-Funk delivers on urgent, genre-flipping finesse. Acid Jazz has played a sizable role in spelling that out. With an ever-keen curatorial ear, they have compiled a release bounding with all-killer immediacy from the off. Like an introductory theme, the soaring brass stabs of ‘Gbeto Vivi’ hone in on their forte: for all these subtly unfurling, deceptively layered arrangements, highlife-like joy is filtered from the first bar. ‘Kou Tche Kpo So O’ is another textbook case. A heady jam with minimal chordal changes, locked and tumbling grooves flip alongside snaking organ and syncopated guitars. Guided by vocalist and conductor Clément “The Boss” Mélomé – who sadly passed away in 2012 – it’s the sound of a collective committed to stretching out fever from every turnaround.

Mostly sung in French or his native Fon tongue, Mélomé’s refrains conduct subtle shifts throughout. Whether full-bodied and rasping, as on ‘Gbeti Ma Djro,’ they often signpost unravelling patterns beneath the surface. In this realm, the term “Poly-Rythmo” is fully operative. The most emphatic cuts on Afro-Funk marry the group’s obvious love of locked, four-on-the-floor beats (see “Orchestre Poly-Disco”) with Sato and Sakpata, traditional Vodun – or, in the West, Voodoo – rhythms common between different West African nations. For the most part, it’s congas that tie all the swirling flourishes of bass, guitar and organ together. The only song here sung in English, ‘It’s a Vanity’ is a masterclass in conga-led repetition and call-and-response. ‘Minkou E So Non Moin’, meanwhile, goes one further. Deft and ecstatic, its blend of unfurling percussion and searing wah-wah motifs doubles down on the polyrhythmic panache.

Having regularly recorded at the professional EMI Studio in Lagos, where albums including Band on the Run were captured, Mélomé and co. confidently pushed forward as a worldbeating proposition for two decades and countless releases. Many corners may still be waking up to that fact but their forward-pushing, endlessly stacked craft feels more vital and reachable than ever today. The relative brevity of Afro-Funk only serves to drive the point home. If the “T.P.” or Tout Puissant – French for ‘All Mighty’ – in their name previously felt justified but tongue-in-cheek, it now carries considerable weight. Testament to not simply facing, but embracing the future head-on, these twelve songs combine to deliver on easily one of the most essential comps of the year.