Gangbé Brass Band in Ganvié and Other Benin Adventures

by Jacob on April 26, 2012

After departing Cameroon the National Geographic Explorer ship moved on to Benin, a small country with a tragic history. One of the epicenters of the African slave trade, Benin exported much of its rich vodun traditions to the New World, which transformed into syncretic religions such as voodoo in Haiti, candomblé in Brazil and santería in Cuba.

I was surprised to learn that the last ship loaded with Africans bound for slavery in the New World left Benin, then the Kingdom of Dahomey as late as 1885. The Portuguese slave trade lasted much longer then in the other European colonies, and slavery wasn’t abolished in Brazil until 1888. Its impossible to visit Benin without confronting the country’s role in the slave trade, and its also enlightening so see how many local traditions were transported to the Americas and still thrive to this day.

Some of my favorite musicians come from Benin. When I was in college, it was hearing Angélique Kidjo’s album Logozo that convinced me world music could be cool and led me down the path I find myself on today. I am a huge African salsa freak and one of the greatest Afro-Latino singers is the late, great Gnonnas Pedro. And Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo de Cotonou has been laying down funky grooves since the seventies.

ANGELIQUE KIDJO “BATONGA”

GNONNAS PEDRO “LA MUSICA EN VERITE”

ORCHESTRE POLY-RHYTHMO DE COTONOU “SE BA HO”

 

But other then these great artists, I can’t say my collection of music from Benin was all that huge. Luckily, that all changed after this visit, and a short yet productive trip to a local market to haggle for stack of CDs led me to some great new discoveries. But more on that in a minute.

In practically every port we have docked we were greeted by a local drum and dance group jamming as we disembarked. The vodun influence was clear in the group that greeted us in Benin, and involved dancers dressed in furry costumes that spun around and performed magic tricks.

Dancers and drummers in Benin

Dancers and drummers in Benin

Dancers and drummers in Benin

 

From there we headed straight off to Ganvié, and amazing city of 30,000 people built entirely on stilts in Lake Nokoue. According to legend, the village was established by people fleeing the warriors from the Kingdom of Dahomey, who sold countless millions of captives into slavery.  Because vodun powers do not work on water, the villagers were considered unattackable, and the city expanded over the years.

Ganvié is one of the most picturesque places I have ever visited, with wooden shacks poking up precariously from stilts over the shallow water. There is very little solid ground in Ganvié, and getting to your neighbor’s house requires a boat. Despite the setting, the city is home to schools, churches, all the infrastructure of a regular city. There are even some hotels where you can stay, which I would love to do someday.

House in Ganvié, Benin

House in Ganvié, Benin

Hotel in Ganvié, Benin

Hotel in Ganvié, Benin

I had arranged for the Gangbé Brass Band to meet us in Ganvié for a performance. They put on an amazing show, these guys are really phenomenal live. Imagine a New Orleans brass band with African drums and flavors of highlife, Afrobeat and vodun rhythms mixed in. Colorful and lively, the band has very good chops. I’ve seen them many times before but in this setting it was truly magical.

Gangbé Brass Band in Ganvié

Gangbé Brass Band in Ganvié

Trumpet player from Gangbé Brass Band

Trumpet player from Gangbé Brass Band

I’ll admit, having the band perform in Ganvié wasn’t an original concept. I got the idea from one of Gangbé Brass Band videos, which gives you a great sense of what we experienced that day:

You may be thinking to yourself, “a brass band in Benin”? Actually, one of music history’s untold stories is the impact of colonial military brass bands on the world’s music. As European powers took over the world with their armies, they also brought with them their military bands, which were traditionally dominated by the sounds of brass, winds and percussion.

1800s European Brass Band

1800s European Brass Band

These brass bands became essential in colonial music pedagogy and before long local musicians had adopted trumpets, tubas, trombones, flutes and saxophones. Of course, they learned marches, waltzes, foxtrots, fandangoes, and all the other military and ballroom styles popular at the time, but they also blended with their own local aesthetic to create a totally new approach to the instruments of their European colonizers.

African Brass Band

African Brass Band

National Jazz du Dahomey

The National Jazz Orchestra of Dahomey album cover

The most famous example of this is, of course, the New Orleans brass band, which paved the way for the development of jazz.

Hot 8 Brass Band, New Orleans

Hot 8 Brass Band, New Orleans

In Cuba, military brass bands led to brassy Cuban ballroom dances such as the habanera (which in turn influenced Argentinean tango) and eventually the mambo orchestra and the brassy sound of salsa that we know and love today. In Africa, brass has been an essential element of highlife, Afrobeat, soukous and so much more. So it only makes sense that we would find such an excellent proponent of brass band music performing on a dock in Ganvié, Benin. The world of music works in mysterious ways…

If you are interested in the history of colonial brass bands and their impact on the world of music, check out this classic book by Dutch author Rob Boonzajer Flaes entitled Bevogen Koper. The book has been translated into English as Brass Unbound, but I recommend reading it in the original Dutch… 😉

Brass Unbound cover

"Bewogen Koper" (Brass Unbound) by Rob Boonzajer Flaes

Once I returned from Ganvié I was able to sneak off to the local market with my friend Jamie, the bartender on the ship, in tow. We found a few local record stores and I began the now familiar process of picking out promising looking titles and haggling over the price. While I’m sure I far overpaid, I was really happy with what I found in Benin. In fact, I was pretty surprised with the amount and quality of the music. Of course, I found some classic gems from Gnonnas Pedro and Poly-Rhythmo de Cotonou, but I was surprised to find quite a few exceptional artists I’d never heard of before.

Here are a few samples of what I found:

G. G. Vikey, apparently a folk hero in Benin. I recognized some of his songs that were covered by other artists such as Angelique Kidjo, but I’d never heard him before. Great old style acoustic troubador:

On a whim (certainly not because of the cover art…!) I bought three compilations that were excellent and highly recommended if you can track them down: Benin Passion, Benin Passion Vol. 2 and Benin Passion Vol. 3. Here’s a sample of some of the great old school music they contain:

Turns out Gnonnas Pedro is not the only great salsero from Benin. Salsa is alive and well in the hands of the excellent Bayo Agonglo. I love this track, which blends Beninese drums and rhythms with and Afro-Latin vibe:

For another great contemporary Benin salsa artist, check out Belmonde Z:

Zouley Sangaré also does some great work:

The young singer Sessimè was a discovery:

That’s just a small taste of what I uncovered in Benin. I was really happy with what I found there and I’m sure there is a lot more great music to be uncovered. But, the ship was about to leave port and I needed to jump aboard or risk getting stranded in Benin. Maybe that wouldn’t have been such a bad thing!

 

 

 

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

MamaKea May 10, 2012 at 5:11 PM

It would NOT have been a bad thing to get stranded in Bénin! Great sights, sounds, flavors, and people!
I miss it!!!

Reply

Jacob May 16, 2012 at 4:08 PM

Thanks Will. I loved Benin and I look forward to spending more time there in the future. I’m sure there is even more great music to discover.

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