Gangbe’s fascinating rhythms

Boston Globe, October 21, 2005

Although a few ubiquitous artists dominate the “world music” canon and the racks of your favorite CD megachain, African music isn’t standing still. Across the continent, young musicians are experimenting with electronica, hip-hop, reggae, jazz, and new takes on traditional forms.

Just a fraction of this creative ferment finds its way to Western ears. Count the 10 members of Gangbe Brass Band, from the West African nation of Benin, among those lucky few. And count Boston fortunate to hear them when they make their local debut Sunday at the Somerville Theatre.

The basic ingredients of a Gangbe concoction are the traditional rhythms of the region, played on a range of African percussions, and classic trumpet-and-trombone Western brass. The result is wholly modern.

“We’re not retro musicians,” says trumpeter Athanase Dehoumon, on the phone from Belgium. “Our ambition is to contribute to a better future for African music. It’s a contemporary music, with brass instruments and songs with strong words, strong messages for our country and the world.”

Though performed mainly in local languages, Gangbe’s songs are translated in the liner notes to the band’s excellent new album “Whendo.” They speak of honoring the land and treating each other well. They invite those who left Africa to return and develop their countries.

One song, “Remember Fela,” is a tribute to the legendary master of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti. It’s a remake of one of his signature songs, “Colonial Mentality.”

“We changed the title because we think you need to look for what is good in anything that has happened, and not cast stones at anyone,” says Dehoumon. He recalls the time Gangbe opened for Fela back home, and how the master invited the band members to his suite, proffered encouragement, and predicted their eventual success.

Gangbe’s sound progresses through a variety of styles like a parade where the rhythms evolve from one neighborhood to the next in active communion with marchers and onlookers. The layered Afrobeat and juju music give way to big-band swing, the loping sound of a New Orleans jazz funeral, or a crisp, coordinated funk that wouldn’t be out of place at halftime of the Grambling-Southern football game.

Those bayou associations are no accident. The Benin coast was a major source for the New Orleans slave trade. The Vodun religion, whose legacy permeates the black Caribbean, was born in Benin. The members of Gangbe grew up playing in funeral bands as they might have in the Crescent City.

“We had the chance to hear a lot of the New Orleans marching band sound,” says Dehoumon. “And when the Rebirth Brass Band came to play in Benin, we saw that here is a group that looks a little like us. With the difference that they play [bass and snare] drums, whereas we only play traditional percussion instruments.”

Those instruments allow Gangbe to work with the heritage of Benin’s numerous ethnic groups, including, they say, rhythms that are now rarely performed and face extinction.

“Each of us brings his own culture in terms of the rhythms, the songs, the local color of our villages,” says singer and euphonium player James Vodounnon.

Before they could work with this heritage, Gangbe needed to secure permission from community elders and the keepers of certain sacred rhythms and instruments that were forbidden for nonreligious use.

“We presented a musical repertory to these religious dignitaries, to explain our mission to add value to the music by playing it at home and in the world,” says Dehoumon.

Evidently the elders were swayed, as Gangbe has become important at home as well as emerging on the world stage. Modestly, the musicians attribute much of their success to Contre Jour, the Belgian company that discovered them and helped produce “Whendo.”

Consistent with their agenda, the band members still make their home in Benin.

“We may not have had the chance to be great political leaders,” says Dehounon. “But we do have the opportunity to contribute to our country’s development by means of what we know how to do, which is music.”