Thursday, February 16, 2006

in the Mouth of the River of Death

February 16th 2006

No other place on this earth has been nearly as good to me when it comes to records as Cotonou, the biggest city of Benin.

The name "Cotonou" is in the local language of Fon and means "mouth of the river of death". During the height of slavery, an average of 10.000 slaves per year left from here, many of them to Haiti. Haitian Voodoo has its roots in Benin where up until now it is the most popular religion outnumbering the muslim and christian minorities. Vooodoo was outlawed by the Marxist regime in the 70's but was legally allowed again by a new, more democratic government in 1989 and officially recognized as a religion in 1996.

Benin has some of the most amazing food I've ever tasted. Delicious seafood, a large choice of meats from delicious beef stew to smoked goat and an enormous variety of vegetables and fruit. More than once, I was reminded of things I had tasted in Louisiana. Okra is very popular, so are fried yams and of course plantains. On the side you often get served a very spicy, yet fruity and aromatic, homemade, green hot sauce.

Not unlike the unique and excellent cuisine, there seems to be a special kind of Funk coming out of Benin. Loud, syncopated drums and insane organs meet guitar work like it can only be found in Africa: Unorthodox, freely improvising, yet rhythmic and tight. Singers range from over-ambitiously melodic to grunting and screaming up a storm.

One thing is for sure: If you come to Cotonou and only spend time digging, you are missing out! A night out in the seedy and pulsating redlight district of Jonquet ("notre quartier chaud" as my guide Ignace put it) where most of the city's clubs and discotheques are located was a true eye-opener. A live band with two vintage keyboards, amazing guitar, bass and a truly mindbending drummer/singer delivered an astonishing variety of afro-cuban to funky tunes that had the completely cramped place go wild with people dancing wherever they could find some room. The highly potent local booze, destilled out of palmwine can also be highly recommended.

Talks with several record store owners and musicians revealed that in the 70s, there was a lot of interaction with the scene in Cote d'Ivoire and even more so with Nigeria (Lagos is only three car-hours away) as a lot of bands from Benin recorded as well as played out across the border. The economic situation in the early 70s was very bleak in Benin and the local clubs could not compete with what a band would make in one of the many hot spots in Lagos. Before Benin had its own pressing plants, most bands also had their vinyl manufactured in Lagos.

One day, I decided to visit Bohicon, a town about 70 miles to the North of Cotonou. My guide Didier and I travelled in a bush taxi and upon arrival chartered two motorcycle taxis with local drivers who said they'd know some places where we would find records. The first spot was at a store that sold cassette tapes, records as well as radios and all other sorts of electronic equipment. The records were in two large wooden boxes that also contained swarms of large cockroaches and silverfish. Most paper sleeves had been eaten away partially by insects. The closer we got to the bottom, the lesser intact the sleeves and the thicker the bug droppings inbetween records. The air was thick with dust and and a dark layer of dirt and bug excrement started to cake onto my hands and lower arms. When I was finally through with everything, we jumped on our bikes and zoomed across a labyrinth network of dirt roads finally reaching a big one story building with clay walls.

The owner of the records store who had accompanied us on a third bike introduced us to a very old man who had some white medicine smeared all over his body and was only covered around the waist with a piece of cloth. The record store owner went into the next room and returned, one after the other, with three very large wicker baskets that were stuffed with stacks of LPs and 45s. At one point, thankfully long before our visit, the baskets had also given a home to some sort of hornet who had chewed away almost all cover sleeves right up to the records, leaving round layer cakes of vinyl, paper and cardboard. I found a few records where even small amounts of vinyl had been gnawed off by those eager little critters. Things got really rough when I hit the bottom of the last basket that contained mostly 45s: The hornets had built chambers and tunnels inbetween the records, using a red, claylike substance that I guessed consisted of chewed up record sleeves, earth and hornet spittle. To make things even more bizarre, large pieces of insect shells were baked into the thick, red crust. Otherwise, the records that I could see the surface of seemed unplayed and the fact that most of them were present in multiple copies supported the idea that this was dead stock. I decided to also buy the claycaked ones, including the embedded insect parts.

Back at the hotel in Cotonou and after I had cleaned up all of the records in the bathroom sink, I was relieved that almost all of them turned out to play nicely. I rewarded myself with a big and deliciously satisfying dinner of warm shrimp and bellpepper salad with a palate tingling lime dressing, followed by a huge grilled crayfish with a heap of fried, sweet plantains. As I washed my shellfish down with several ice cold La Beninouise beers, I watched the fishermen in the lagoon cast their nets across the water, unfolding in mid air like white flowers. I thought about how close bugs and crustaceans really are to each other and that a crayfish in fact is nothing else but a giant cockroach that lives underwater.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Digging this adventure - wish you would come down south (New Orleans, La. USA) and spin!