Fun and upbeat, Benin International Musical have made an album that brings Beninese culture to the forefront
Upon listening to BIM #1 for the first time with my uneducated Western ears, it seemed to me to be a straightforward Afrobeats (also known as Afro-Pop, which as a style of music is essentially an updated version of Afrobeat as pioneered by Fela Kuti, inasmuch as it combines traditional West African music with Western styles) album, nothing more, nothing less. It was fun, fast music that was eminently listenable, though not perhaps in the same league of superstars like Youssou N’Dour. However, when I began to start my research for writing this review, the album itself began to reveal more depths to it, and it was evident that Benin International Musical’s debut album had more to it than meets the ear (is that an acceptable abuse of an idiom?). A closer listen revealed plenty of diverse musical inspirations and influences that make this album more of a musical journey than just a straightforward experimentation in African and Western styles.
“It effectively highlights Beninese culture, while also taking the listener on a musical journey around the music of Africa and the West, and combining them perfectly."
As stated on their Facebook page, Benin International Musical is a collaboration between seven Beninese musicians, with funding from Radio France, TV5 Monde, and other cultural and artistic institutions, and it was founded to pay tribute to Benin’s fascinating musical heritage, also with an emphasis on the voodoo culture of Benin. Voodoo, also known as West African Vodun is an integral part of Beninese culture, and is a religious and cultural practice that has been mischaracterised and maligned in the west. Voodoo music and rhythms are an integral part of Beninese music, and part of the mission statement of Benin International Musical is to bring this to a wider audience. Indeed, one track, the final one called Voodoun Space explicitly refers to the Voodoo culture of Benin. Though I have listened to only a few examples of Voodoo music that are available on YouTube, from which I got an understanding of the style of music played, from what I have heard, the music played at Voodoo rituals is mainly drum and percussion based, intensely rhythmic and the vocals are chanted in groups. I am not really in a position to say whether BIM #1 is an accurate reflection of that, or indeed what specific aspects of the music relate to Voodoo culture, but I can say that their music reflects that distinctive beat, and their expression of pride in their cultural heritage had made me interested in finding out more about Benin.
Musically the album is very accessible, and perhaps the most accessible song on the album is Allons Danser, meaning ‘let’s dance’, which contains elements of hip hop, rap, afrobeat, and funk all mixed up together into a very catchy track. It is also very consistent. It is another one of those albums where, if you take to the vibe initially, there will be little to dislike as it is all of a similar feel. That said, there is plenty of variation within the formula. Destiny, sung in English, is the rockiest song on the album, while maintaining a backing track that is more traditionally African. Benin Tovile is similar, combining funky guitar with elements of rap and trip hop. Iyé, The Benin Atmosphere, and Mihawe are the most straightforward songs on the album, what with them effectively being pop songs with a Beninese rhythm, but I enjoyed them nonetheless.
Téoun Téoun is the most pensive and relaxed song on the album, and the only one that feels almost like a Beninese take on a ballad. It has a sense of longing and sadness within it which makes it one of the most emotionally powerful songs on the album, even though I have no idea what they’re saying. Achika Wogo is the most simplistic song on the album, what with it being a stripped-back song with only an electric guitar and harmonising vocals for most of the length of the song giving it an almost gospel musical aesthetic, before drums, bass and an acoustic guitar join the fray. Similar to Téoun Téoun, it has a melancholy feel to it, but also a triumphant and inspirational sound to it too. I like these two songs a lot, even if the upbeat earworm that is Allons Danser is the song I go back to the most.
Overall, I found much to enjoy in BIM #1. It appears to be a fairly standard yet enjoyable album to start with, but on a closer, more active listen it revealed itself to be a much more interesting album than I had initially given it credit for, as it effectively highlights Beninese culture, while also taking the listener on a musical journey around the music of Africa and the West, and combining them perfectly. In doing so, Benin International Musical have left their indelible mark on the Afrobeats genre, and I look forward to seeing what they release in the future.