Gig review: Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Back in the 1970s, Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo De Cotonou used to precede their name with the abbreviation TP, which stands for Tout Puissaint: almighty.

Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds. Picture: Opera North
Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds. Picture: Opera North

The passing years have inevitably taken their toll: band leader Clement Melome passed away recently, and bassist Gustave Bentho – whose nimble bass lines add hypnotic, funky pull to the proceedings – now plays sitting down. But the ten-piece that emerge from the dressing room in matching red and white outfits already singing, dancing and chanting still pack a hefty punch.

The energy and sheer joy on display throughout tonight’s 90-minute set belie the fact that the band from the coastal town of Cotonou in Benin have been in existence for 50 years, many of them in trying circumstances after political unrest in the early 1980s in the band’s country of origin led to a drought of bookings.

Past hardships must have made the successful second wind that band has enjoyed since their first European shows ten years ago even sweeter. Having started in 1968, Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo De Cotonou disbanded just as previously hopelessly obscure West African grooves courtesy of contemporaries such as Orchestra Baobab were starting to get noticed abroad.

Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds. Picture: Opera North

Celebrated compilations of the band’s vintage recordings on Soundway and Analog Africa labels (most recently, the group’s old cuts have featured on the latter’s much-acclaimed African Scream Contest 2 compilation) led to the group’s ongoing rejuvenation: much of tonight’s set derives from fresh material the band has released since their regrouping.

The almost manic, gritty raw energy of the band’s most famous recordings is perhaps understandably toned down tonight. Having toured prolifically since their comeback, it’s a slick and well-honed set, performed amidst occasionally dense emissions from a smoke machine. That doesn’t make it any less compelling.

Cooking up a rich stew of intense polyrhythmic splendour of funky bass lines, layered percussion (this is essentially a group where every instrument and each of the three singers perform percussion duties), choppy chicken scratch guitar, call and response vocals and horn riffs, the band conjure what may have occurred had James Brown performed material inspired by the mystical goings-on at Beninese voodoo rituals with Fela Kuti’s Africa 70.

There’s little sense of stale routine on display. Lead singer Vincent Ahéhéhinnou attempts gamely to communicate with the crowd through a particularly steep language barrier. At one point, Bentho is surrounded by band mates indulging in what can only be described as a robust take on the Funky Chicken; the moves are most likely related to dances performed at Beninese voodoo ceremonies.

Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds. Picture: Opera North

Towards the end, the saxophonist steps off the stage to lead the audience members dancing in the aisles in a conga line around the venue.

On tonight’s evidence, Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo De Cotonou require no voodoo rituals to win the crowd over.