Benin, with artists like Angelique Kidjo, the T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo, Lionel Loueke, and the Gangbé brass band, is a small country that continues to punch above its weight on the international music scene. All of these aforementioned artists, each in their own ways, have drawn inspiration from Benin’s mother lode of traditional music; a diverse body of rhythms and styles that spread to the New World with slaves, sold to European traders by the kings of Dahomey, and that sprouted new branches on the plantations of Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, and Louisiana, becoming part of the bedrock of the folk and popular musics of the Americas.
This American-again in the continental sense-musical matrix, in turn, birthed the Cuban son, Brazilian samba, New Orleans second-line funk and soul, and Haitian compas; popular dance musics that have travelled the world, and contributed to many twentieth century African musical styles. The musical dialogue continues today with the rediscovery of groups like the Orchestre Poly Rhythmo by a new generation of music fans, in the collaborations between Angelique Kidjo and artists from Brazil and Cuba, and in Lionel Loueke’s work with Herbie Hancock, Cassandra Wilson and Wayne Shorter. Meanwhile, the creative energy that stoked the artistic fires of the Black Atlantic throughout the twentieth century, inspiring artists from Arsenio Rodriguez to James Brown, Jorge Ben to Duke Ellington, Bob Marley to Coupé Cloué, continues to flow through the traditional musics of Benin.
In the market stalls of Cotonou, cassettes of tchinkounme, agbadja, and other traditional styles continue to outsell modern groups like Afafa and Diamant Noir. The two heavyweights who continue to dominate the traditional music market are Alekpehanhou and Gbessi Zolawadji. I spoke with both of them last week.
Alekpehanhou, the king of the renovated Zinli rhythm, was born Claude Michel Loucou, in 1957, in Abomey, a city in southern Benin which, from 1625 to 1900, was the capital of the kingdom of Dahomey. He grew up in a musical family and inherited both his stage name and talent from his father; who was given the name Alekpehanhou by the King Aho Glélé. The name means ‘the songbird can produce a beautiful melody in spite of his small size’, and was bestowed on the elder Alekpehanhou when he was still a young boy, singing at the court of King Aho Glélé, who was a son of the King Glélé (1858-1859) but who never held the main throne of Dahomey.
Claude Michel was also bestowed the name when he was a young boy. Most evenings, after dinner, his family would wind down the day with several hours of song, under the attentive ear and direction of the elder Alekpehanhou. It was after one of these sessions that his father formally announced that Claude Michel would subsequently carry his name and legacy. The younger Alekpehanhou started singing in public when he was still a young child in Abomey, mastering the Zinli through his participation in countless funeral ceremonies.
The Zinli is a style of music and dance, of the Fon people, that is performed to accompany the spirits of the deceased onto the next world. Centuries ago, funeral songs were accompanied by several calabashes (the calabashes were overturned in water and used as hand percussion) and a clay jug. It was during the reign of king Glélé that the Zinli style was formalized. At the death of one of his father’s best friends, Glélé organized an orchestra featuring several hand-drums of different sizes, gon bells, and a large clay jug called the Zinli; the rhythm takes its name from the clay jug. Today, Alekpehanhou’s group includes between six and ten percussionists, and up to thirty singers and dancers.
In 1980, Alekpehanhou moved to Cotonou, where for the next ten years he taught primary school. Two years after his arrival in the capital city, he started his own group, and started to develop his own style of Zinli, which he called the Zinli rénové, or the renovated Zinli. ‘I took the traditional Zinli of Abomey, that I learned as a child’, Alekpehanhou told me, ‘and opened it up. I have made it less melancholy, transformed it into a rhythm that can be performed at all occasions. We now perform the Zinli rénové at weddings, baptisms, communion celebrations, concerts, and national events, as well as at funeral ceremonies’. In 1985, Alekpehanhou released his first cassette, and today he is promoting his twenty-seventh release. Over the years, his fans have given him many titles and he is now known to all as ‘Le Roi Alekpehanhou’.
All of his cassettes kick off with a song of self-praise. In ‘Sato na hagna’, the title track to his nineteenth cassette, Alekpehanhou sings, ‘no matter how old the panther, when he roars his voice remains powerful. I live through my voice, and I haven’t lost any of my power’.
His twentieth cassette opens with the track ‘Lon mon dja sa gni gbé’, in which Alekpehanhou compares himself to a mole. He sings, ‘I am like the mole. The mole can’t be stopped; he digs labyrinths that never end. My voice is always digging deeper’.
Alekpehanhou draws a lot of his inspiration from Fon wisdom and from the events of his daily life. In ‘E non lin gnla nou mi a’, off his nineteenth cassette, Alekpehanhou uses a Fon proverb to meditate on a domestic drama he had recently lived through. A committed polygamist, Alekpehanhou once lost two fathers-in-law on the same day, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, and thus found himself saddled with unexpected expenses that he had trouble meeting. He sings, ‘before you try and shoulder a heavy load you have to first consider the strength of your ankles. If I have a problem today, it is a problem that I went looking for. If I hadn’t married several women, I would not find myself in this situation’.
‘Etè ka gni kou ô ton?’ is an example of a more traditional Zinli funeral song. Dedicated to one of his fathers-in-law, who passed away in January 2005, Alekpehanhou sings, ‘we were not done with you yet, but death has taken you away from us’.
Reflecting on his twenty five years in music, Alekpehanhou is most proud of the fact that his name is known and respected throughout Benin. ‘In a poor country, where most artists cannot hope to get rich’, he told me, ‘respect and recognition are the proof of a successful career’. His biggest challenge remains managing his group of three dozen musicians. ‘Human nature is complicated’, Alekpehanhou said, ‘and with over thirty musicians and dancers to please, there are always challenges’.
Koffi Albert Bessanvi was born, in 1952, into a family of musicians, in the small fishing village of Djegbadji, located on the shores of the lagoon that spreads north from the Atlantic port of Ouidah; which was a center of the Portuguese and Dahomean slave economy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Koffi grew up listening to his father’s performances of ‘Avogan’, a social dance for nobles, but was more attracted to the youthful rhythms of Agbadja; a style of music that he discovered in the village of ‘Oumako’, located in the Mono department.
Koffi started his career in his early twenties and made his ‘major league’ debut in 1976, sharing a bill with many of the country’s most popular cultural artists at Cotonou’s ‘Palais des Congres’. Koffi’s talent brought him success and a nickname; for the last thirty years he has been known to Agbadja fans in Benin, Togo, and Ghana as Gbessi Zolawadji, which can be roughly translated from the Mina language as ‘the beautiful voice that brings everyone together’.
Gbessi has released fourteen cassettes, performed in Gabon, the Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Togo and South Africa, where in 2001 he won the Kora award for best traditional artist of the year. I asked Oscar Kidjo-Angelique Kidjo’s older brother and the owner of the Cotonou studio where Gbessi records-what distinguishes Gbessi from other traditional artists. He answered, ‘Gbessi puts a lot of research into his compositions, studying the different styles of song and dance of the Mina people, and is always meticulous in the studio. He puts as much thought and effort into his recordings as any modern composer I work with. Whereas other traditional artists will record a half-dozen songs in two days, Gbessi will spend a week to ten days making sure all of his tracks are perfect’.
Although Gbessi’s group is built around the same rhythmic core as other Agbadja groups, he has not been afraid to frame his rhythms with horn lines or piano harmonies. ‘Mi Dou Agbe’ is the title track off the cassette which won Gbessi the Kora award. He sings, ‘don’t give others a hard time. Live your life, and look for peace and harmony’.
The song ‘Djah’, which has a similar arrangement, develops a similar theme. ‘Don’t wrong others’, Gbessi warns, ‘whatever you do will come back to you’.
These next two selections have more typical arrangements. In ‘Aoyaka’, one of his more famous songs, Gbessi praises his village and his own talent. ‘Agbenou’ is a cry for help, Gbessi sings, ‘I am suffering and I have no one to reach out to’.
Today, Gbessi lives in Cotonou, and continues to perform at weddings, baptisms, celebrations and concerts throughout Benin.
Special thanks to Marc Boulovi for his help in Cotonou. If you enjoyed the music in this post I strongly urge you to check out Orogod, a blog that features lots of wonderful music from Benin.