Friday, January 18, 2008

Gnonnas Pedro: Voir le comédien, le musicien, le magicien

For some reason, when I was younger, every time I saw a "Gnonnas Pedro & his Dadjes" on a record sleeve, I read it as "Gnonnas Pedro & his Dandies." Looking back on it now, it seems somewhat appropriate. Dig: Yesterday I was reading The Painter of Modern Life, Charles Baudelaire's collection of essays explicating, among other things, the worldview of the dandy. This passage leapt out at me:
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...


1. I Got You
2. A Ma Fille
3. Les Commedies

1. Massaniyo
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.


tubeworms said...

aah, i always like me a little gnonnas come nightfall..thanks!
I'm especially fond of his track "yiri-yiri bom", any idea on which album it appears, if it does at all?

All the best!

Comb & Razor said...

hey tubeworms...

i can't remember exactly which album the song originally appeared on, but i know that a few years ago it was on a Putumayo compilation called "Congo to Cuba," which i have... somewhere.

i'll post the song later if i can dig the CD out.

b2v said...

amazing !!
I keep on playing A Ma Fille ! what a killer ! wicked sensual blues and the French lyrics are great too, Aznavour could have sing it.
bravo !

Comb & Razor said...

i love that song too, b2v... and i also love your Novamix blog, too!

i used to listen to Radio Nova all day at work, but i haven't had much time to check it out lately. i need to get back into that habit!

b2v said...

Thanks ! Nova is still an interesting radio no doubt. I just read that Gnonnas was a big Aznavour fan, incrdible how he succeed to put the same vibe with his african style. what an artist !!
give us some more !

Comb & Razor said...

more to come...

Frank said...

Don't give too much credit to my opinion... I might be totally in the wrong here about the roots of Afrobeat lying in Benin. I read somewhere that "Olé" by the Black Santiago was recorded in 1967, if that is true, there might be a chance I'm not totally mistaken. The economic situation in "post revolutionary" Benin before 1972 was pretty dire and most bands went to Lagos for gigs and also to record and press up records. Maybe it was during those early years of the late 1960s that the spores of Afrobeat were carried from Cotonou to Lagos. Maybe it was the other way around. There are certainly some Beninoise Folklore recordings that have syncopated drumming and sound somehow "funky" in my ears.

Comb & Razor said...

hmmm... well, you know, i listened to that folklore track you had on the "Deeper and Deeper" mix and i thought it was pretty interesting... but one of the main reasons i think the case for the Benin connection to afrobeat might have merit is because it seems Afro-Cuban music was much, much bigger there than it ever was in Nigeria. and when you get down to it, afrobeat is really like a mix of black American soul and Cuban rhythms (with other indigenous elements thrown in).

of course, Fela's band was called "Koola Lobitos," which suggests some significant interest in Cuban music... but as you said, a guy like Ignace de Souza was running all around between Nigeria and Ghana, and who knows what kind of influence he had.

and then you have another faction altogether who prefer to attribute the invention of afrobeat to Ethiopian jazzman Mulatu Astatke and his 1966 release Afro Latin Soul... i think that one might be slightly far-fetched, though!

Anonymous said...

nice thank you.
I am deeply in love with gnonnas pedro's music since I heard their wicked and amazing song "lavodjo".
I liked "dark as a dungeon" and "A Ma Fille" a lot, so again, thanks!!!

my top ten at the moment:
ifang bondi "saraba" (masterpiece.)
william onyeabor "atomic bomb" (WoW!)
star band de dakar "sala bigue" (heavenly!)
star lite 78 (ghana gods!)
king sunny ade "private line" (guitar god)

Anonymous said...

top ten transformed into top five.
things like this can happen. I am sorry...