Published Jul 14, 2012Expectations ran high for one of the greatest Afrofunk bands of all time making their Toronto appearance. Everything about the night spoke volumes about what African music in Toronto is all about.
Tout-Puissant Orchestre de Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou were the pride and joy of Benin, one of the most versatile and (as the name suggests) powerful ensembles of the 1970s. They should be mentioned in the same conversation as Fela Kuti's Africa 70, Orchestre Baobab, the Super Rail Band and Bembeya Jazz.
However, Benin being a small, French-speaking country, the group's music didn't travel as far beyond their home base. Their biggest career boost came through the excellent Analog Africa label who featured them on their African Scream Contest collection, whose very name tells you the expectations of a decent segment of the audience.
On the other hand, it's not like Toronto has a large contingent of émigrés from Benin, so there wasn't a built-in following, unlike those for, say, Nigerian artists. But due to the Orchestre's excellent reissues and great comeback album last year, they were high profile enough to become one of Harbourfront's marquee acts this summer. And as always, curious tourists took the chance. End result: the WestJet stage was about two-thirds full, low for these types of concerts but as enthusiastic as hoped for.
Now, this Orchestre is capable of seriously rocking out; many tracks can take a party to another level. More so than perhaps any other rock-influenced West African band, the Orchestre have a hell of a backbeat. Add the occasional James Brown-derived scream and it's funky bliss.
However, on the whole, 35 years after the group's glory days, the slamming snare on beats two and four just wasn't there. The mix can't be faulted, either: for a change this often tricky venue sounded great. What they lacked in power, the Orchestre made up for subtle, grooving tricks and the capability to shift gears.
Opening up, they needed some time to find their feet, but when they did, what had been a thudding highlife groove all of the sudden started moving in a different direction with more -- you guessed it -- polyrhythms of the 6/8 variety. This mastery of three beats over two made their Cuban-tinged material flow effortlessly.
In conjunction with their more traditionally inspired Vodun (ancestor of Santeria and Voodoo in the Caribbean) workouts, it was a full experience. Heck, they were able to strike up a call and response with the stiff-upper-lip Toronto crowd in 6/8, so they must have been doing something right. Quite a few times they broke it down to just percussion, sounding more than a little bit like New Orleans's second line rhythms.
On balance, the crowd loved it even if songs like "Se Ba Ho" didn't cut through with the same authority as they once did. But the band's range, professionalism and versatility made it a memorable concert.