If you’re a fan of the reissued African music on labels like Analog Africa, Soundway Records and Strut, then Orchestre Poly-Rythmo should be a household name. These juggernauts of funk have been laying down some of the sickest grooves in the world for over four decades. The assignment to cover their concert at SummerStage in Central Park was something I took on with pleasure. These are legendary musicians, so any opportunity to document them is always a worthwhile venture.
The ensemble fully known as Le Tout Puissant Orchestre Poly-Rythmo, which means The Almighty Poly-Rhythmic Orchestra in French, is known for playing many different styles of African music, hence the name Poly-Rythmo (many different rhythms); afrobeat, highlife, soukous, sato, afro funk, soul, you name it, they play it. The glue that holds it all together is the traditional Beninese sensibility with which they imbue all their music. Those vodun rhythms run deep.
The SummerStage concert in Central Park started off with DJ Chief Boima warming up the crowd with choice African cuts, followed by riveting performances from Bibi Tanga & The Selenites and the hip hop infused Malian trio, SMOD. On any other occasion, this alone would have been enough for a terrific show, and there would have been no complaints, but this was no regular show. There were musical giants waiting to grace the stage with their presence. As soon as Orchestre Poly-Rythmo took to the stage, you felt the collective rush of the audience moving forward as one. They wield that kind of power.
A lot of musicians are talented, but not many have the stage presence of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo. It’s one thing to listen to the records at home, but these guys are something else in person. Their personalities and friendly demeanour shines through when they’re on stage. Here’s one example. The trumpet player, Vital Assaba, seemed to have a larger than life personality on the stage. Simply put, he owned the stage. He never stopped having fun, dancing, smiling towards the camera, and even giving the thumbs up before taking a solo as I took some pictures from the press pit. To be cognitively aware of all that is happening around you, while focusing on playing your music is easier said than done. I’ve been to a lot of concerts, and let me tell you, many musicians don’t do this. I don’t expect them to, but it’s always nice when they do. It’s a thrill to see the musicians having as much fun as the audience.
And indeed, the audience was having fun. Everyone was dancing and singing along, even those who didn’t speak French or Fon. I struck up a conversation with a photographer from National Geographic who lived in Cuba. He said the music reminded him of Cuban music, which should not be surprising to anyone who has a deep understanding and knowledge of the music of the African diaspora. Many Cuban rhythms are rooted and derived from the music brought over by African slaves. I was glad he noticed the similarities.
An Orchestre Poly-Rythmo concert would not be complete without a performance of the classic Gbeti Madjro, and the band duly obliged, much to the delight of the crowd.
During the performance, I overheard a young lady in the audience say “I have no idea what they are saying, but it sounds so sexy! Whoooo!!” The old guys still have sex appeal. They have appeal, period. You know what else happened? I saw photographers stop taking pictures just to take in the show. When a photographer puts down their camera to get immersed in your performance, you are indeed very appealing. That doesn’t happen often.
Orchestre Poly-Rythmo’s performance at SummerStage in Central Park was one for the ages. If Orchestre Poly-Rythmo is passing through your town, do yourself a favour and go see them live. If they’re not passing through your town, and you're wondering if it'd be worth the time and expense to go see them in a neighbouring town, here’s a hint: don't wonder, just go.