At the beginning of April, a handful of venues in Nantes (France) hosted the very first edition of « Les Nuits du Benin », a festival showcasing music from Benin through « Benin International Musical ». But, it is so much more than simply a music festival. Benin International Musical, or “BIM”, is a project initiated by Hervé Riesen of Radio France, set up in collaboration between Benin and Radio France. It brings together a collective of Beninese musicians, aiming to expose the incredibly rich cultural heritage of Benin.
BIM is a concept as much as it is a group, existing in a number of different sizes and variations made up of versatile, multi-talented musicians. The BIM that performed on the opening night of the festival is made up of seven members. Yaovi Atcho, guitarist of the group explains, « there are two singers, Brigitte and Nayel; our drummer Jimmy Belah who is the lead percussionist and one of the essential pillars of BIM; Emile, percussionist; and Lionel Babatoundé on bass. » Jimmy Belah, for example, also performed his own project, Achika, including a few members of BIM. Rapper and percussionist, Yewhe Yeton, makes up half of the hip-hop/rap duo, Dimenxion Flexible (DiFlex), along with Fenu Yeton, another member of the extended BIM network. While these projects exist in their own right, they also form part of the essential network of BIM that seems to take on a different form at any given moment. A performance starting with a certain group of BIM will most likely see fellow members pick up a piece of percussion and join on stage, bringing audiences members up to dance with them.
Riesen explains, « we have a musical project as far as the group are concerned, to play pieces of music, but we also want to tell the stories around the music, produce reports and a documentary. » One of the stories to be told within this project is that of the historical link between Benin and Nantes, still lingering from the slave trade. The Oueme region in Benin was one of the biggest ports of departure during the centuries when the slave trade was legal in Africa, and many Beninese slaves were brought through Nantes on the way to the United States. A conference featuring Pierre Lepidi, a journalist for Le Monde who specialises in African affairs, is one way that the festival explores this story. In October 2017, Lepidi retraced the slave route that stretched between Abomey and Ouidah, and then between Ouidah and Cotonou.
Yewhe Yeton, percussionist and rapper of BIM tells us how he sees Les Nuits du Bénin as an opportunity to create a new cultural link between Benin and Nantes; a way of remembering the shared history at the same time as favouring new cultural exchanges and encounters. « Since arriving in France we have been really happy with the welcome we have received. We are also pleased to see that the traces of our history have not been erased, with the slave memorial in Nantes, for example. »
Then, there is the story of Voodoo culture. Riesen explains how Voodoo culture in Benin protects the country from religious extremism: « it is not sorcery, sticking pins in dolls or dark images. It’s a real philosophy. Our aim was to show how this philosophy and religion unites everyone in Benin and protects them from the terrorism taking place not far from their borders, particularly with Boko Haram. » Yewhe explains that Voodoo is harmony with nature, it is love for others, and it is tolerance. « Our grandparents practiced Voodoo culture and it was them who accepted others, and other religions so that Benin, nowadays has a number of different religions. »
Tying together all aspects of the project and festival, however, is the story of the music. « From the very start of BIM’s set you will see where disco and funk came from. It was in Voodoo convents that the instruments and rhythms that gave birth to blues, jazz, rock and roll, even rap were born, » explain Yewhe and Riesen. Most of the music from BIM comes from Voodoo culture and cultural practices of Voodoo – the instruments, rhythms and songs. However, Jérôme Ettinger, artistic director of the project, points out that when speaking about BIM, we are not talking about « world music », or Voodoo music in a traditional sense. Although they borrow from these styles, Ettinger prefers referring to a mix of « afro, voodoo, hip hop ».
On stage BIM is a modern and innovative experience of roots, rhythms and styles, brought together by an ensemble of extraordinary musicians. They are musicians who can make a guitar sound like sweet vocals; who have you out of your seats one moment, and your heart out of your chest the next. The fundamental desire for exchange and reciprocity on the part of everyone involved in Les Nuits du Benin and BIM is striking. BIM present you with a view towards the rest of the world. On their first trip to France, these musicians want to expose your mind and senses to the colours, rhythms and philosophies of Beninese culture. Ettinger emphasises this inclusivity, « we want to invite more people into the project. We are here to welcome those who want to be involved and go on this journey with us. » There is a real feeling that once you enter BIM’s concert hall, you are entering into their narrative. BIM are here to share their experiences with you, asking in return only that you sing and dance and embark upon the journey of « Les Nuits du Bénin » and of “Benin International Musical” with them.
Article and tranlsations by Ellen Weaver
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