Blog April 16, 2015
Five Stars: A Benin Roots-Pop Primer

In Benin, a small francophone country in West Africa, traditional music, vodun spiritual music and popular styles of roots music are intimately entwined. Creative artists transform traditional music into roots-pop by altering and 'modernizing' rhythms and instruments, writing their own compositions in the styles they interpret. There are many, many styles of roots-pop, but the baseline of dense percussion and intricate vocals is a constant. Roots music is extremely popular: artists sell thousands of CDs and DVDs of music videos, pack stadiums for concerts and frequently appear on national television. Let's check out five awesome roots-pop artists from Benin. Most are featured in our program Benin Roots Alive. If you want to hear more, be sure to check out the Benin Roots Pop Mix we're dropping next week.

Allevi- known as 'the prophet,' is from the Mon0-Couffo region of south-west Benin. He performs toba hanye, a roots-pop style that uses a large lamellophone (think 'thumb piano' but really big, like the Caribbean marimbula) as the lead 'drum.' Producer Morgan Greenstreet attended the release concert for his latest album, and you can hear the recording he made on the program Benin Roots Alive.

Gbeze Zegue-Zougou is the top performer of tchinkounmé, a popular roots style from Savalou/Abomey region of Benin which uses calabashes in water to produce a sonorous rhythm. The lengthy skit at the beginning of this video--taken from his latest DVD-- is an appropriation of praising, where the dancers in his troupe praise him like a king or powerful vodun chief, demonstrating his 'royalness.' Stick around [3:22]  and you'll see Gbeze change costumes almost every camera shot, and ultimately strip to the waist and dance without restraint.

Norberka is the only acclaimed female 'traditional' roots-pop singer in Benin, and the artist responsible for popularizing zinli gbété, which was formerly played only for vodun funerals of imporant people in Mono-Couffo. This clip shows Norberka in her element, dancing, singing and drumming at a concert:

And here's the title track from her latest album, "Gantché xo:"

In Benin, there are five different styles of zinli. In Abomey, the ancient seat of the Dahomey kingdom, the local zinli is the most popular rhythm. It was traditionally played for the kings, but these days zinli is pop music, and Alekpehanhou is the undisputed 'king' of the style. The long, low buildings in this video are vodun temples that have been in use for centuries in Abomey:

Anice Pépé, another big star of roots pop, also performs a style of zinli, which he calls zinli alênou yôyô. His zinli is derived from the traditions of his hometown of Adjohoun, Ouémé, in south-east Benin. To give you an idea of his popularity, the poster at the top of this page announces his album release concert at the largest stadium in Cotonou.

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