Finn-Funky Vodun: Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble Conjure Up Musical Brotherhood on “Fire, Sweat and Pastis”
Finnish guitarist Janne Halonen was obsessed: He couldn’t stop listening to Lionel Loueke, the guitarist in Herbie Hancock’s ensemble. He knew Loueke was from Benin, and had to know what made his music tick.
Before he knew it, his fascination took him to Benin. The country is home to Villa Karo, a Finnish-African cultural center established fifteen years ago to promote exchange by writer Juha Vakkuri, who wanted to spread his passion for the continent. There, Halonen met Noël Saïzonou. The two connected and the unexpectedly perfect Finn funk-meets – Voodoo rhythms of Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble was born.
On Fire, Sweat and Pastis (release: July 7th 2016), the Ensemble’s second album available in North America, the octet of musicians experienced in jazz, funk, R&B, and traditional Beninese music intertwine the percussive rhythms of West African Vodun with funky basslines, soulful call-and-response vocals, and virtuosic brass and woodwind melodies. They invite listeners to join them on a musical journey that is equal parts celebration and reflection.
“Every song is a new discovery. It’s about the people, the individuals,” reflects Halonen. “When you work with someone more, you learn what they’re all about.”
Travelling to Cotonou, Benin’s most populous city, for the first time in 2009, Janne explains, “I was asking who is The Man? Who should I meet?” Everyone pointed to vocalist and percussionist Noël Saïzonou. “The first time we met we greeted each other like old friends,” remembers Janne. What followed was several years of songwriting sessions as Noël came multiple times to Finland. They learned about each other and crafted their sound.
In West African Vodun music, the drum gathers the ancestors, a spiritual call to action. Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble uses drums and bass as their foundation. Originally they were a quartet featuring Janne, Noël, drummer Juha Räsänen, and bassist Sampo Riskilä. Janne explains, “During the writing process we started from scratch. We met up and one of us would introduce a riff and we started to work from there.”
In 2012, Janne Halonen finally went from Helsinki back to Benin. A 4,000-mile flight, a flat tire, and a clandestine boat ride led Janne, Juha, and Sampo to a recording studio in Cotonou. Just two weeks later, they performed their new songs for African concert-goers that laid the foundation for Fire, Sweat and Pastis. “We wrote the songs for our second album on tour, between shows,” Janne laughs. “In the heat of the moment.”
Janne describes the origin of “Minin Vodjo”, the album’s third track. “That means do the right thing. Encouraging people to think positively and set aside things like jealousy and hatred.”
The lyrics are collaborative, Noël composing in Goun, his mother tongue. Onstage he banters with the audience, playing the role of conductor. While on tour in Africa, Janne encouraged Noël to speak to the audience. “He would ask people to listen to the lyrics. When there was something really specific in the lyrics people like, they’d applaud,” explains Janne.
Fire, Sweat & Pastis is an energetic statement bursting with the desire to celebrate and share their music. And composer Janne Halonen has crafted a complete journey. An album that knows exactly when to change pace, like stopping to rest your tired feet at just the right moment. “Interlude Part 1” and “Interlude Part 2” feature thumb-plucked Kalimba, melodic acoustic guitar, rolling Fender Rhodes, galloping hand drumming, and thumping bass in casual conversation with each other.
“Minin Vodjo” opens with light percussion, as Sampo’s buoyant, funky bassline is grounded by Visa Oscar’s sustained keyboard harmonies. Noël leads the band with his assured verse, singing in counterpoint to the ensemble’s refrain. Then the horn section comes bounding in, featuring Mikko Pettinen on trumpet and Joakim Berghäll on saxophone. Aided by Sampo and Juha’s interactive bass and drums, the song builds in intensity to the finale like a cresting wave crashing into a rocky shore.
“Light is fading, the road is long,” sings Noël on the opening track. “Feet are aching, but we carry on.” On this road, Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble celebrate every step. Listening to each song on Fire, Sweat & Pastis is like stopping at a sleepy, roadside town, only to discover it is the place you’ve always longed to be.