In this context, pray interpret the word 'artist' in a very narrow sense, and the expression 'man of the world' in a very broad one. By 'man of the world', I mean a man of the whole world, a man who understands the world and the mysterious and legitimate reasons behind all its customs; by 'artist', I mean a specialist, a man tied to his palette like a serf to the soil. M. G. does not like being called an artist. Is he not justified to a small extent? He takes an interest in everything the world over, he wants to know, understand, assess everything that happens on the surface of our globe.Well, damn, I thought. That kinda describes Gnonnas Pedro, doesn't it?
Beninois singer, dancer, bandleader, guitarist, trumpeter and saxophionist Gnonnas Pedro was not an "artist" in the sense of being a specialist in one any one discipline, and if he was anything, it was certainly a man of the world. A dazzling showman who hewed to the old school entertainment ethos of giving the people want they want. You wanted to hear a bolero in Spanish? Gnonnas Pedro would sing it for you. French chanson? He was up to the task. American soul? Congolese rumba? Nigerian-style highlife? Your favorite country ballad? No matter the song or the style, you could count on Gnonnas Pedro to give it the old college try. At the peak of his popularity, Pedro's Dadjes were known as "the African band that speaks every language." His forte, however, remained crackling Afro-Cuban grooves as well as agbadja, a modernized form of Fon folkloric music.
The Republic of Benin never made a major impact on African or world music (or World Music™) culture. Perhaps due to being a tiny Francophone state wedged between the two Anglophone giants, Nigeria and Ghana, the nation was never able to produce and forcefully project anything like juju, soukous, benga or mbalax--a unique, homegrown style that changed the way the world listened to music and put its country of origin on the musical map.* What Benin did have in spades, though, was a slew of industrious, fanatically committed orchestras that mined borrowed styles like highlife, funk, jerk, jive and jazz for every drop of sweat, swing and soul they could wring out of them. Thanks to the tireless archaeological efforts of Soundway and Frank (not to mention Samy at Analog Africa), Cotonou is becoming a musical mecca for groove cognoscenti and the numerous works of Beninois bands like TP Orchestre Poly-Rythmo and Rego et Ses Commandos are now not only well known, but also keenly coveted.
It wasn't always like that, though. But while most of the Beninois bands toiled in obscurity, Gnonnas Pedro's stylistic versatility and affable stage presence earned him popularity across West Africa. His Yoruba highlife tune "Feso Jaiye" even became a standard among Nigerian musicians.
Gnonnas Pedro finally got to shine on a larger stage in the mid-90s, when he was recruited to replace recently-deceased singer Pape Seck in the Afro-Nuyorican salsa supergroup Africando, recording and touring with the band until he succumbed to colon cancer in 2004 at the age of 61.
This album here is a collection of covers that offers a sampling of his musical polymathy, with Pedro taking on everything from Merle Travis's "Dark as a Dungeon" to the cabaret of Charles Aznavour. Pedro was a great admirer of the French crooner (which whom he was privileged to record a single with in 1964) and there is a certain poignancy to his renditions of "À ma fille" and especially "Les comédiens" (here listed as "Les Commedies").
The lyrics of the latter song seem to describe Pedro's own metier to a degree: "Come see the actors, the musicians, the magicians..." On stage, Gnonnas Pedro was a musician and a magician, but perhaps beyond all that, an actor. His style-switching constituted more than just the essay of genres, but a deliberate reinvention of the self. When Pedro declares "Ladies and gentlemen... Now Gnonnas Pedro is gonna be James Brown!" before launching into a charmingly awkward phonetic reading of "I Got You," he dresses himself up in a constructed identity through music much as the dandy does through sartorial artifice.
And so, walking or quickening his pace, he goes his way, for ever in search. In search of what? We may rest assured that this man, such as I have described him, this solitary mortal endowed with an active imagination, always roaming the great desert of men, has a nobler aim than that of the pure idler, a more general aim, other than the fleeting pleasure of circumstance. He is looking for that indefinable something we may be allowed to call modernity...
GNONNAS PEDRO & HIS DADJES BAND - GNONNAS PEDRO & HIS DADJES BAND VOL. 2 (WORLD WIDE MUSIC, 1980, WWM 4 L)
1. I Got You
2. A Ma Fille
3. Les Commedies
2. Dark as a Dungeon
*Frank does, however, strongly maintain the singular belief that the roots of the Afrobeat genre lie in Benin and not Nigeria. It's an interesting theory, actually, and one worth investigating.