Tuesday, May 26, 2009
So I've not been around for a bit, thanks to a fall in my own hallway that resulted in a broken shoulder, damaged ribs and a trip to the hospital. They even had to give me morphine before they could move me, which under usual circumstances would have been great but in this instance hardly made a dent in the pain quotient. Seemed like a big waste of fine opiates if you ask me.
Anyway I didn't much feel like typing for a while, particularly as it was my right arm that was out of action and typing one handed with the left is a long and laborious process. So instead I have had a chance to catch up on some of the music that I've been sent in the meantime and one of the stand outs of this batch comes, unsuprisingly, from that finest of labels, Analog Africa.
Legends of Benin is the fifth release from this label, rapidly establishing itself as the delicatessen of dance music, and stands shoulder to shoulder with their previous releases that include the towering gem that is African Scream Contest - Raw & Psychedelic Afro Sounds from Benin & Togo 70s. Once again compiled by label boss Samy Ben Redjeb this labour of love in not just an exercise in finding the very finest cuts for our delectation but it's also a great example of doing the right thing. Ben Redjeb has tracked down the composers, or their families in the case of those no longer alive, to license their work directly so that any money made goes to the makers of the music.
This kind of behaviour is so very rare, unfortunately, in the consumption of music from messy markets. Even though I'm not particularly a fan of UB40 they are held in very high esteem by many Jamaican musicians because they did the same thing ewhen compiling their massive selling Labour of Love albums. It was very unusual for Jamaican writers to get paid once the song had left their heads and UB40 put a lot of money back into the hands of the creators. I would love it if Ben Redjeb is able to do the same thing as this album is one of the most satisfying and delicious collections I've heard in a long time.
The compilation focuses on four towering figures from the Benin music scene, Gnonnas Pedro et Ses Dadjes, Antoine Dougbé, El Rego et Ses Commandos and Honoré Avolonto, who recorded these tracks between 1969 and 1981. They range from the birth of Afro-Soul-Funk, in the form of Feeling You Got by El Rego, through Benin's take on Afrobeat by Honoré Avolonto that shakes to the very foundations and challenges the great Fela to a booty shaking dance off. Then you have the subtle rhythmic layers laid down by Gnonnas Pedro, that kicks the album off in a startling and original fashion. From the off your dragged into the midst of a musical spell that seems to make most of the material coming out of my radio seem redundant and vapid. Then there is the long hidden joy that is Antoine Dougbé who incorporates Vodoun rhythms into the pot along with Congolese rhumba to create a dark and snakey melange that rocks.
Now I know loads of you may be reading this and going "here we go again, some sad world music nerd claiming that everything recorded on a box in Africa is genius" but, believe me, I am not one of those. Too much music is stolen from around the world and sold back to us as works of rare suffering and beauty, and it isn't. But this is the real deal. I've played it to friends who won't watch films with subtitles for Chrissakes and they love it. Music should weave, make tapestries in the air and take you out of yourself to a place of sex and magic. It's what it's supposed to do, even folk music.
The people who made this music lived real lives, and some still do. Music shows sides of their character that doesn't find expression through being president of the Benin boxing federation or running a brothel (in the case of El Rego) or being the Devil's Prime Minister in the case of Antoine Dougbé (funny that, I thought that was Tony Blair's job!). That might seem like a lazy statement to make but when you hear this album punching out of the speakers you know that you are in the presence of masters.
We don't have many of them left these days.