You hardly know what to expect when you see an album by a band named Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble. How much of their music is going to be inspired by the Voodoo beliefs and practices? Is it going to be a hybrid that somehow manages to blend the Beninese and Finnish cultures perfectly? Fire, Sweat and Pastis, the band’s second album, is all this and so much more. There is such an incredible feeling of funky afro-fusion jazz emanating from this album.
The 11-track LP is the second instalment from the octet of Finnish and Beninese musicians. The group came together after guitarist Janne Halonen decided to pursue his obsession to understand the amazing guitaring of Lionel Loueke, who had worked on many noteworthy jazz, soul and fusion projects with Herbie Hancock and Terence Blanchard. He travelled to Benin and instead met percussionist and singer Noël Saïzonou and their first album, Beaucoup de Piment was born. You can definitely feel the same connection between these two different people forged by their collective love for good music on their sophomore album. The fusion album sees them bind jazz, blues, rock, highlife and soul seamlessly into one wholesome sound. The different styles complement each other extraordinarily, such that on a sonic level, there is not a noticeable difference in personality. Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble is a united front making some of the most charged and energetic afro-funk and Jazz music today.
The about 47 minutes long album is constructed from dissimilar influences and pays homage to other African bands who also took an eclectic approach to producing music based on their roots. There are pleasantly alternating moments of hard-hitting gritty rock and funk and mellow and soulful jazz in perfect balance on this project. The song Djigbo brings up memories of Ghanaian-Caribbean band Osibisa’s Osibirock album. The up-tempo jam on which they declare, “You can forget your roots, I don’t forget my roots” is a fully focused sonic beam of pulsating drum and horn loops, led by a stimulating trumpets tied together by the racy folk inspired vocals. This song bites you in the face with its ferocity. This is the swiftness with which Fire Sweat and Pastis carries a listener and immerses you into a mosh pit.
Minin Vodjo another stand out cut on the LP is spiritual in typical voodoo style, and you can feel the passion reverberating through the notes of all the instruments. It is steered by the steady pace of the gong, an instrument whose hollow and eerie atmosphere is ever-present on the LP. From start to finish, Fire Sweat and Pastis is one jam session overflowing with energy and passion, giving respite only on the two interludes, which are a calm but fleeting pause. The Other Side is the only song that does not resonate on the some sonic level as the rest of the tape. It expands on a certain inner calmness or “peace of mind” as the lyrics state. However, the switch to this laid-back vibe feels abrupt, especially because the next song, Midje, probably the best song on the tape, restores the familiar pace. This enchanting track begins with Saïzonou’s tingling guitar riffs and gently blaring trumpets until the groove jazz drum loops spring up on you.
The journey metaphor comes across strong on this album. The band definitely appears to be communicating a sense of brotherhood that has developed organically during their time together. You get a sense that most of the music is an ode to the learning, unlearning and relearn that went on as these two musical styles and cultures collided. The album however, begins to feel blurry after a while. Sometimes it reminds you of the work early work of Fela Kuti’s The ‘69 Los Angeles Sessions. Other times it resembles the rich and cheerfulness that Osibisa brought to the stage and garnered them international success. This blurriness does in no way diminish the great character that the band displays in their work. The closing song Hope is an epitome of the moderation they apply. It begins as a serenading smooth jazz song before slowly snaking into a more eager afro-fusion song complemented by background voodoo chants and adlibs.
On Fire, Sweat and Pastis, Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble reminds you of just how blissful jazz fusion can be. The record’s moody horn progressions, thumping drums and rousing singing all come together like strokes of colour on an oil painting. Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble represents the very best in afro-fusion today. Buy it here.