• Joel Dwek

TOGO: Otodi - Vaudou Game

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

What's the link between the Vaudou culture of Togo and the funk music of the 1970s? Vaudou Game show us where the two genres can cross

A while ago, we reviewed Benin International Musical’s first album BIM #1, and it was in that review where we touched upon the Vodun culture that is prominent in Benin, not just in music, but also as a religion and way of life. Once again, we delve into those waters, except we’re hopping over the border into neighbouring Togo, where it is also practiced under the name of Vaudou. The anglicised term voodoo is usually used as a catch-all term for the many types of this African spiritual practice. This form of it, known as West African Vodun, in order to distinguish it from Haitian Vodou, the more the more well-known, and unfortunately more maligned, misrepresented and denigrated version of the religion practiced in the Caribbean and Louisiana in the USA, is a part of life in this particular part of West Africa, influencing the music of these nations as well. Furthermore, much of the music that we associate with African-American musicians is, in its roots, West African, due to the huge amount of slaves taken prisoner from West Africa and uprooted to the USA, as well as the Caribbean and South America. As such, while it may appear that Vaudou Game have looked West to America for inspiration with this album, they have, in fact, uncovered a hidden link between the music of their region and the funk and soul bands of the 1960s and ‘70s.

“In this combination of two seemingly disparate genres, the band have created something interesting to listen to, as well as something supremely fun and engaging, which is a testament to their talent and ability as musicians.”

Vaudou Game are a band consisting of seven members, principal of which is Peter Solo, their lead singer and guitarist. Himself born and brought up in the Togolese town of Aneho, where Vaudou is part of the everyday culture. Vaudou can be hard to describe and understand if you’re unfamiliar with it as I am, and so I thought I would use Solo’s own words to help give a sense of what it is. In a 2016 interview he gave with Afropop Worldwide, he describes it thusly:

Vaudou means consult… our ancestors say we should consult those elements that were here before us, like the earth, water, fire and air. These elements, for our ancestors, were living, vibrating elements…

There is also the cultural dimension in Vaudou… And when I talk about culture in Vaudou, it’s not just music! There’s the art of clothing, how one dresses in Vaudou; there’s the culinary art, what we eat when we are practicing Vaudou, everything that we eat during the ceremonies… dance, song, everything like that is part of the cultural dimension of Vaudou. So music in Vaudou is undeniable!

Vaudou is not religion. People want to try to say that Vaudou is a religion. Vaudou is not religion! Vaudou is a philosophy, Vaudou is a way of living, Vaudou is a spiritual state.

Though this is not strictly related to this album – the interview was given before Otodi was released – I feel it is still hugely beneficial to understand what Vaudou means in Togo, Benin, and to its many practitioners around the world. For further understanding of Solo’s cultural background and on Vaudou in general, I would recommend reading the article in full, which can be accessed by clicking here.

The album at hand, Otodi, styles itself as a mixture of West African folk and James Brown-esque funky soul, and it’s a rather irresistible mix. Pas La Peine is maybe the best expression of this on the album. It’s catchy, memorable, and one can clearly hear the soul inflections as well as the more African rhythms and beats. Tata Fatiguée is similarly excellent, with another catchy beat, and a backing vocal style that seems both authentically West African and also something one might hear in a James Brown song. In this combination of two seemingly disparate genres, the band have created something interesting to listen to, as well as something supremely fun and engaging, which is a testament to their talent and ability as musicians. Though it is an album with a cohesive sound and vision, it isn't all upbeat funk numbers, some songs like Lucie are disarmingly slow in comparison with the rest of the album, which makes it stand out from the rest, and it allows the band to show a softer side to their skills. At nearly an hour long, there was perhaps some room for editing, but overall, it’s something I would highly recommend.