Artist: Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble
Album: "Fire, Sweat and Pastis"
Songs: "The Road is Long," "Djigbo"
So, Finnish guitarist Janne Halonen goes to Benin in West Africa, forms a collaboration with local singer-percussionist Noël Saïzonou that grows into a full band with players from both countries and it winds up sounding like… Earth, Wind & Fire? Well, that’s one of the impressions from this buoyant, bubbly and thoroughly pleasurable new album "Fire, Sweat and Pastis," notably in the opening song "The Road is Long," with the horn-powered funk here and there evoking the golden joy of classic ‘70s EWF. Elsewhere it brings together buoyant Afrobeat and electric Euro-jazz, some things in English others in Gounn, Saïzonou’s native dialect, in a notably natural-sounding mesh — no imposition, no need for either party to bend to the other. It’s a rare fusion that truly fuses. And it’s a fuse that ignites.
It’s not a big surprise for anyone familiar with some of the exciting music coming from Benin in the last generation — the gripping, multi-faceted artistry of Angelique Kidjo most prominent, but also such figures as innovative jazz guitarist Lionel Loueke, showing Benin as a land of many musical streams, from the traditional village songs to the Jimi Hendrix and Santana records that took their own root there after coming in through the Cotonou ports.
It was the astonishing and distinctive playing of Loueke, via his role in Herbie Hancock’s band, that captivated Halonen to the point that in 2009 he made a pilgrimage to Cotonou in Benin, there being introduced to Saïzonou. The partnership clicked quickly, Saïzonou soon making several trips to Helsinki for writing and recording sessions, putting together a core quartet lineup and after just a few shows, releasing a debut album in 2013. The next year, Halonen returned to Benin and a new phase began leading to the expanded, highly spirited sounds on the new album. And speaking of spirited, the Pastis of the album title, if you didn’t know, is an anise-flavored French liqueur.
Make no mistake, this is an African album first and foremost. The high-power rhythms, stacks of vocal chants, percolating Vodun drums and choppy guitar lines all are firmly on West African ground. Nowhere is that stronger than on the rollicking "Djigbo." But throughout, this is music of two cultures, two artist from two cultures, working together as one.