Solid Afro-funk, but the Vodoun influence doesn’t integrate very well.
Genre: Afrobeat/funk/traditional music crossover
Release date: September 12, 2014
Label: Hot Casa Records
Format: 12″ vinyl (tracks 1-10)/streamed (tracks 11-12)
Catalog number: HC 32
Peter Solo – vocals, electric guitar, composition
Roger Damawuzan – vocals (tracks 2 and 7)
David Kiledjian – alto saxophone
Jérôme Bartolomé – tenor saxophone
Julien de Saint-Jean – trumpet
Vincent Girard – bass
Vincente Fritis – electric guitar, keyboards
Nicolas Delaunay – drums
Of the various regional scenes of the African funk and afrobeat movement that emerged at the beginning of the 1970s, the scene in Benin and Togo is perhaps the least known to Western audiences. Influenced by traditional Vodoun sacred chants and the traditional songs of African peoples from the area such as the Ewe and the Fon, the “voodoo funk” of artists like the Tout-Puissant Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo and Vincent Ahehehinou pushed an even more radical sound than Fela Kuti and his imitators in Nigeria, leaning much more heavily on traditional percussion and African musical scales than Fela’s massive horn attack and rhythm section dominated by a Western drum kit. These musicians were almost entirely ignored outside of their home countries despite strenuous efforts by the government of Benin to promote Beninese music (indeed, T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo was the country’s official state orchestra for several years), their music only reaching the West in significant quantity in recent years due to the efforts of European record labels and collectors capitalizing in Europe’s surge of interest in African music in recent years.
And with that surge of interest, a musical crossover with more familiar (to Westerners) musical idioms was inevitable. Enter Togolese guitarist, singer, and composer Peter Solo, who gathered together several musicians from France’s lively and competitive jazz scene, taught them his native language of Guin along with the rituals and sacred music of Togolese Vodoun, and hybridized their musical background with his own to create Vaudou Game. Compared with their predecessors from the 1970s, Vaudou Game’s music is much more streamlined and polished, but also brings the Vodoun influences to the forefront, incorporating the Vodoun scales into the instrumentation (traditional Vodoun sacred music has none, only vocal harmonies) as well as the vocals.
However, the union of these different musical styles strikes me as being less than seamless. A regional musical culture isn’t something you can write into a book and teach at Berklee (not that it stops such institutions from trying); it has to be lived in to be fully understood and reproduced, and the white Frenchmen Peter Solo hired for his band are, at the end of the day, still a bunch of white French jazzmen and sound like such. They’re all technically proficient (keyboardist Vincente Fritis and bassist Vincent Girard in particular get some pretty impressive lines), but some of the rhythmic feel and harmonic texture of the all-African ‘70s bands they imitate is lost. Unlike with those bands, the hand percussion here is pretty sparse and only played by various members of the band when they are not occupied with their usual instruments, so the drummer would have a hell of a time replicating the complexities of West African polyrhythms with only his small jazz kit even if he really tried; a lot of the time he doesn’t and sticks to typical jazz drumming and funk breakbeats.
Can Peter Solo even see out of that helmet?
Solo himself, however, delivers completely on his parts of the music. His guitar playing is classic West African style; never that fast or flashy, but always reinforcing the groove and employing unusual guitar tones that most Western players would never approach. His singing, too, is quite good, rough but strong, belting out melodies in enchanting, twisting melodies derived directly from the Vodoun sacred tradition (the album’s EPK even has an actual performance of a Vodoun chant at a religious ceremony that then transitions into the band’s rendition). I’m less bullish on his uncle, Roger Dawamuzan, who pipes in on the songs “Pas Contente” and “Wrong Road” and really likes James Brown, right down to the high-pitched yells and interjections of “Good God!”. His singing is good enough for what it is, but it feels a bit out of place here.
The production also deserves a demerit; the band boast about having recorded it on vintage ‘70s analog equipment, but it sounds like a second-generation analog bootleg of a ‘70s record than the real deal; the drums in particular sound quite thin and weak in the low-midrange and lack definition in the attack. It’s especially disappointing compared to the huge, punchy sound of their live recordings at the Afrikafestival Hertme in the Netherlands. The only real upside is that it sounds better than most of the African records of the 1970s, but considering how little money and equipment most African studios at the time had, that’s not saying much.
The songs vary in the relative amounts of Western jazz-pop, African funk, and traditional Vodoun music employed, with “Pas Contente” being the obvious pick for the lead single, essentially a Western pop song with a call-and-response with a lot of James Brown-ish yelps between Peter Solo and Roger Dawamuzan over Afro-funk instrumentation. It is certainly catchy enough, but I find the whole thing a bit rote. The lyrics are given much more focus in this song than most of the others, though they’re in French so Anglophones are out of luck trying to decipher them.
On the opposite pole is the Vodoun hymn “Ata Calling”–where “Pas Contente” is joyful and energetic, “Ata Calling” is solemn and stately, riding on a down-tempo 6/8 blues shuffle instead of the funk beats and simple polyrhythms of the other tracks. There’s an interesting contrast between the horns, which play in a traditional blues scale, and Peter Solo’s singing, which uses an African scale whose steps do not correspond at all to traditional Western tonality. This is the only track on the album whose style is genuinely novel; while the others more or less repackage the same material that formed the basis of bands like T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo for a modern Western audience, this track uses a different sort of Vodoun music (the first ever use of this mode, according to Peter Solo) with a correspondingly different instrumental backdrop. The refrain is particularly moving, enough that it makes me wonder what the song is about—the record jacket indicates that it’s a prayer to a “supreme deity”, but otherwise it’s of no help.
Another highlight is the instrumental (except for some wordless backing vocals) “Dangerous Bees”, a jazz-funk jam composed of variations, developments, and transformations of the saxophone riff that plays at the beginning of the song. It’s short, so as not to over-exploit its single main idea, but it flows very nicely and features a simple but sinuous tenor sax solo that highlights Jérôme Bartolomé’s command of tone color. The guitar sticks with the rhythm section and simply keeps the groove going as the horns do their thing on top. Subtle changes to the main riff every time it is reprised along with a very strong sense of momentum keep what might quickly become repetitive from a less proficient group fresh for the entire duration.
The melodic “Meva” is like a more developed version of “Dangerous Bees” with the sax melodies trading off with what sounds like some sort of work song—perhaps originally sung by farmhands during a harvest? However, it quickly becomes apparent that the two don’t quite fit together. No matter how the saxophone, trumpet, guitar, and bass are tuned, the intervals between their notes are still fixed in the form of a European chromatic scale, and the Vodoun scales seem to fall outside of the twelve tone system entirely, and this shows throughout the record as the horns usually back out when the singing starts up in the more traditionally-influenced songs.
And this problem, inherent to the design of most European instruments (the trombone, the violin family, and a handful of others excluded, and even they would require their players to learn new systems of intonation), greatly undermines the band’s stated goal of adding Western instrumental harmonies to Vodoun traditional music, as these instruments can only approximate a true harmony, because they physically cannot produce many of the notes in the scales the singers use. No matter what they do, the seams will show between the Western and traditional African styles, unless they somehow redesign all their instruments to fit.
Towards the end of the record, they seem to stop trying altogether. Most of the songs after “Wrong Road” are mostly straight Afro-funk songs with jazz and pop influences, with whatever Vodoun melodies do appear cut into fragments and interspersed with singing in a more Western style, often in English or French. They are quite good Afro-funk songs, but compared to the bands they sound like they come across as distinctly watered-down. The frenetic “Djin Ku Djin” is the best of them, which is then followed by the two most generic ones, “Need a Job” and “Think Positive”, whose banality creeps into their very titles. Some very European fanfare-like Hammond organ solos (the one in “Need a Job” turns into an actual fanfare!) appear here and there in the last few songs, and they would be welcome on say, a prog rock album, but they just sound odd here. “Lazy Train” is a step up (despite the organ lead that sounds like it wandered out of the slow part of an Emerson, Lake, and Palmer epic) with a genuinely catchy chorus that seems comfortable being what it is—a pop song, much like “Pas Contente”. The funk beat is probably the best one on the album, the bass and guitars locking in with the vocals in a way they never could on the Vodoun songs.
Overall the album feels like a valiant but ultimately futile attempt to combine things that just can’t meld together—if there are instruments that harmonize well with Vodoun sacred songs, they’re not European. The best of the Vodoun songs exploit the tension between the African and European elements, and the best of the funk and pop songs mostly disregard Vodoun music altogether. While a larger band with more African musicians who are grounded in African musical traditions would help, that cannot alleviate the conceptual problems with this music. It is a quite entertaining album and recommended for fans of funk and Afrobeat, but as an attempt to bridge Vodoun music with modern popular music traditions, both European and African, it mostly works as a very polished curiosity, and probably always will unless someone invents several new instruments and an entirely new form of harmonic theory to accompany Vodoun music.