Audio
Credit: Analog Africa.

Here's Some Incredible '60s & '70s Psychedelic Rock From Benin

We premiere a new track from Analog Africa's upcoming African Scream Contest 2 and talk to label founder Samy Ben Redjeb.

For a decade now, Analog Africa has been releasing vintage and rarely-found music from across the African continent and its diaspora, some recent highlights include The Cosmic Sound of Cabo Verde and the Afro-Cuban fusion of Amara Touré.

One of the label's most popular releases over the years has been African Scream Contest, originally released in 2008, which featured a compilation of what the label describes as "Vodoun-inspired, psychedelic afrobeat, and heavy funk crossover" from Benin in the '60s and '70s.

Ten years after its release, Analog Africa is prepping the drop of African Scream Contest 2, which will feature 14 rare tracks along with a detailed booklet with liner notes and pictures. The album, which will be available in CD/Vinyl/Digital on June 1 is up for pre-order now.


We spoke to label founder Samy Ben Redjeb, who also shared an exclusive of the album track "Glenon Ho Akue" from Lokonon André et Les Volcans.

Read our conversation ahead.

How would you describe the sound found in this compilation?

I would say some of the songs are modern renditions of traditional rhythms. Since the music is from Benin, these musical traditions, from what I understand, are mostly rooted in the Vodoun (Voodoo) religion. I am not sure if all of Benińs traditional beats are related to Vodoun, but if they are I've certainly never heard about it. Others are just straight up funk and afrobeat tunes, but since they are played in part with traditional instruments, it gives them a kind of a raw edge which I love.

How did you first come across this music?

At the time my aim was to create a series like the Ethiopiques Series, but for Zimbabwean music. I was spending a lot of time in Southern Africa looking for the musicians, the records and the master tapes but politically things were getting worse by the day. This “worsening" culminated with Robert Mugabés operation Murambatsvina, which was essentially a large-scale campaign to clear the country's slum and resulted in the devastating displacement and loss of income for 700,000 people.

The population in general was struggling to make ends meet, many were struggling to survive, to get food, and there was a huge shortage of fuel, so it was impossible to move. It felt wrong to “do music" in these conditions. So I left Zimbabwe promising to myself that I would come back when the “dust settles down." But now I needed a different idea.

I recall very well traveling back to Germany thinking that there was very little music around from Benin and, being a country “squeezed" between Ghana and mighty Nigeria, surely there must be some good music [to re-release]. I started contacting some important collectors for African music, asking them if they had some records from [Benin] and unsurprisingly, most replied with “nyet." Some even discouraged me to go, “it's too small of a country, I don't think its worth it," I was told.

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo in Cotonou 1974. Credit: Analog Africa.

So I bought a plane ticket and went. I arrived in Cotonou in August of 2005 and in my second day I was taken to the house of a former custom officer who until the early '80s had some record shops scattered all over Cotonou. It was in one of the rooms that I managed to find a good part of what had been produced in terms of vinyl record made in Benin. In fact most of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo musical output and the whole first volume of the African Scream Contest series was found in that very house. That discovery very much floored me and it was hard to believe I had just found so much mind-blowing music that none of us, in the northern hemisphere at least, had heard about. I tend to believe that it was a gift from the gods of Music. I was very much puzzled by the musical output of that gorgeous country and little by little that puzzle started to take shape.

I learned that Cotonou was home of SATEL, one of West Africa's most important pressing plants. It was founded in 1973 by Bernard Dohounso, a visionary entrepreneur and record enthusiast. During the '60s, the music industry in Benin was amateurish at best. While it was not uncommon for the more successful bands—or at least those with wealthy, well-connected managers—to record in one of the professional multi-track studios in Lagos, most Beninese bands had to rely on the sound engineers of Radio Dahomey and their Nagra reel-to-reel, a legendary piece of equipment used by everyone from news reporters to ethnomusicologists to film crews. Fortunately these engineers were highly skilled and could turn any courtyard or empty nightclub into a recording studio. And since there were no vinyl pressing facilities in Benin the tapes usually had to be shipped to France for the records to be made. Some producers managed to have their records manufactured in Lagos or in Accra—where major European labels like Decca and Philips had pressing plants—but to do so they generally had to sub-license their songs, since these powerful multi-nationals didn't see it fit to manufacture records for independent labels and producers. With the sudden availability of inexpensive recording and pressing, the process of making music immediately became more democratic and any band, singer or producer with a great idea and a few thousand francs could have their own shot at immortality. Some hit the bullseye and became established artists. Others were flashes in the pan, recording a song or two backed by one of the country's legendary orchestras, then vanishing just as quickly as they had appeared, leaving little more than their name on the torn sleeve of a dusty old 45, pressed in an edition of fewer than 200 copies. SATEL didn't just invigorate the music industry in Benin, it also initiated a boom in record production all over West Africa. During the 1970s, the total vinyl outputs from countries such as Burkina Faso, Togo and Niger were produced in Cotonou.

Ignace De Souza in Cotonou 1971. Credit: Analog Africa.

What music were these artists in the compilation drawing from for inspiration?

Many of these musicians have rural backgrounds and are from families who've been immersed in traditional music and consequently were also naturally involved in festivities, processions and Vodoun rituals. Often the parents of these musicians were musicians as well, such as Moussa Alpha, the father of Moussa Mama, founder of Super Borgou de Parakou, a mighty band from the north of Benin. His father was initially a goldsmith and had travelled to Ghana to develop his skills. A few years later he returned with highlife music and formed the very fist band of the Borgou State—Orchestre Sinpam. Hearing about the new music young men started showing up at Alpha's place looking for music lessons. An open, forward-thinking man, Alpha hoped that modern music could be an engine of progressive change and made training a priority. Sometimes the pupils would stay just few days, sometimes much longer. Those who did not have money could pay by barter, usually bags of millet or some other food their families had grown. When their apprenticeship was over they'd go back to their villages, form their own groups, and share what they'd learnt. And Moussa Mama was also one of them and had spend years being taught my his own father and he surely became an incredible artist himself.These are just some of the extraordinary stories that were happening all over Africa, but they sometimes feel like parallel universe. Vodoun for many is synonym of dark magic, and although there are people, even musicians, who have used these kind of powers for their own selfish gains, generally its a very peaceful religion made up of 250 divinities and each of these divinities have rhythms related to them, so its probably the most musical of all religions and the modern music of Benin is a reflection of that. But then, like all of us, the whole of Benin in fact all of West Africa grooved to James Brown, Otis Reading but also to some lesser funky stuff like Nana Mouskouri, Charles Aznavour and Johnny Halliday. Additionally Bands in Benin during the 1970s had to rely on live music to survive and most would describe themselves as “variety Bands" which basically means that they would play whatever was in demand at that particular time and as a consequence they had to know how to play all kinds of music, and thats one of the main characteristics of African bands during that period. Cuban music was huge in West Africa particularly in Senegal and in Benin but they performed that genre in a way only them knew how to, with their metal percussion, they gave it a sacred Vodoun spin, reinventing it and in so doing, creating something very fresh. The same with funk.

Lokonon André in Russia, 1972, with a friend. Credit: Analog Africa.

Tell us about Lokonon André's role in African Scream 2? Who is he and what did he do to help?

Lokonon André was a musician from the police forces, Les Volcans de la gendarmerie de Porto Novo. Lokonon was a particular character, difficult to understand, on the one hand he was one of the coolest cats I met in Benin and on the other he was very stiff and conservative when it came to politics. And I only later understood why. I also didn't know that he would become one of the architects of this project. That role in the past had been taken by Melome Clement, founder of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou, who in 2010 when I started preparing this release, was constantly touring Europe and busy spreading his voodoo-embedded sound to a wider audience. So he was only rarely available to help me out. I was bemoaning that fact to Lokonon who replied matter-of-factly “I might be able to help. I have a motorbike, and know the country well, so I can drive around and find the artists you want—just give me their names." I wrote a short list, consisted of 5 names on a piece of paper and handed it over. Lokonon read the note, then quickly tucked it away inside his traditional African “boubou" garment, and said “I will call you soon, just give me petrol money", before disappearing with his bike into Cotonou ́s sunset. Lokonon reappeared a week later and nonchalantly handed me back my list, which now included phone numbers beside the artists' names. Having criss-crossed the country from East to West and North to South, he'd managed to locate all five artists in the space of a week. Lokonon then coordinated all the meetings, helped to sort out the licensing deals—often translating between French and Fon—and generally made sure the project stayed on track. But what intrigued me most was how on earth he managed to find down these people. “So what's your secret?" I asked. “How did you find these guys?" And this was his response: “I was a young musician with Les Volcans, a band affiliated to the police forces, when the revolution started in 1974. The republic was governed with an iron fist by president Kerekou, a man who didn't tolerate nonsense. On Sunday everybody had to wake up early, grab a broom and clean the street in front of your place, everybody. Due to his strict socialist doctrine, Kerekou had lots of enemies, in and outside of Benin. So he sensed the pressure mounting and to secure his safety decided to send some members of the police force to be trained by the KGB (aka Russian secret services), in Moscow. I was one of them and so I know how to find people and, if necessary, how to get rid of them."

Lokonon André on his bike. Credit: Analog Africa.

Tell us about Les Volcans and this song we're premiering "Glenon Ho Akue"?

That song was the last tune I've licensed for the compilation and is Lokonońs own composition. Since I don't understand the lyrics I better let the man himself explain this: “Due to the fact that I became a man within the police force, where I had been indoctrinated by Kerekoús socialist doctrine and also because Russia had a strong impact on me, my songs often had an affinity with communist ideas, 'Glenon Ho akue' being one of them. It was recorded in Nigeria at the EMI studio in Lagos in 1976. We'd leave Porto-Novo in the morning and return late in the evening. It's a revolutionary tune, sung in Fon, where I encourage unity to build our country. I am singing that without social cohesion nothing can work. There are no isolated cultures, there are no isolated customs, that they are all connected. The Fon, the Bariba, the Dendi and the Yoruba are all tribes that speak different tongues, have different traditions and live in harmony within the same borders. That was the message on 'Glenon Ho Akue.'"

Analog Africa's compilation 'African Scream 2' will be out June 1 and is available for pre-order now.

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Photo credit should read KELVIN IKPEA/AFP via Getty Images

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