A decade into their career, Finnish-African jazz-funk band Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble has come up with its fifth and strongest album.The main composers, Beninese singer/percussionist Noël Saïzonou and Helsinki multi-instrumentalist/producer Janne Halonen, have crystallised their craft, leading the eight-man group and guests as a seamless team.
This self-titled album, the group’s most melodic and appealing yet, flows more naturally and consistently than its 2018 predecessor.
That fluidity gives no hint that the album was recorded in three countries due to travel restrictions. Saïzonou’s vocals and percussion were recorded in Benin while the band worked in Helsinki with near-legendary Ethiopian-born percussionist and engineer Abdissa ‘Mamba’ Assefa.
Zimbabwean guest rapper Synik, meanwhile, recorded his parts in Lisbon. On The Craft, he contributes a witty rap about “one love from Helsinki to Cotonou” before introducing a tasty piano solo, an infectious hip-hop/jazz blend that brings to mind Ricky-Tick Big Band.
Saïzonou, who sings in his native Gun language, has matured and expanded as a singer. He delivers his most sensitive vocals yet on Alôgô Kpèvidé - A Little Support, over a light R&B setting that could be from a contemporary Broadway show.
Halonen’s work as a composer, arranger and producer is more assured than ever. A thread that holds the album together and entwines the African and European influences seems to be a shared love for classic American R&B and soul.
Opening track Min He Mon Égbé - The One Who Sees Today invites you in with a rolling, jovial Marvin Gaye groove. On Aya Djidjè Na Minkpo - Happiness For All, Saïzonou’s voice soars over African drumming, synthetic strings and horn charts, as irresistible as an Earth, Wind & Fire hit.
The album closes with Do Akon Kpikpan - Stay Strong, co-written by the band’s newest member, Tanzanian percussionist, vocalist and trombonist Kasheshi Makena. The finale features an exquisite guitar solo from Halonen and another tender vocal from Saïzonou, suggesting that this team is just hitting its stride.
Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble: Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble
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