A great Ensemble piece (l to r): Joakim Berghäll, Janne Toivonen, Juha Räsänen, Noel Saizonou, Janne Halonen, Sampo Riskilä, Menard Mponda, Visa Oscar.

Voodoo to dance to.

WHAT do you think of when you hear the word “voodoo”? Images of pin-saturated dolls and headless chickens come to mind for some, whereas myriad rhythmic possibilities emerge for others. For Helsinki-based guitarist Janne Halonen, drummer Juha Räsänen and bass player Sampo Riskilä, it was definitely the latter. And so, in January 2012 they travelled to Villa Karo, the Finnish-African Cultural Exchange centre in Benin, on a scholarship.

Teaming up with local percussionist and vocalist Noël Saïzonou, they then added a further four African musicians to the mix. Soon the octet were performing in front of enthusiastic audiences, intrigued by their unusual sound that fused Benin voodoo traditions with afro-beat, jazz, funk and hip-hop.

A debut album was released to acclaim and this was followed by a successful Finnish national tour in 2013.

Now, after a busy summer spent on the festival circuit both here and abroad, the band also found time to record their sophomore effort, Fire, Sweat & Pastis. SixDegrees sat down with Halonen and Saïzonou to hear about the geographical challenges of having multinational group members, how to get Finnish crowds dancing and just what to do when you perform at a refugee camp.

Noël, how was it to start playing with these Finns, who come from such a different culture?

Saïzonou: It’s always rich for me to play with different people than Beninese, because music is universal. I like to meet people from outside – it can be Finland, France or everywhere – and co-operate with them. I had already started to play with some Finnish musicians who had earlier come to Villa Karo. I started to get a good feeling because it was another world of music they were playing and they were combining with what I have already in my tradition. That pushed my confidence.

I felt immediately comfortable with Janne. It was with him that I particularly started to soar.

What does Janne bring?

Saïzonou: He brings the European influence of music to the voodoo music reality. He brought the jazz side, the pop side and funk side also. Actually, the roots of funk music are in Benin. The tempo is played in traditional music there. We also tried kaka music, adja rhythm, esse, different rhythms.

Janne, has it been difficult for you, with Finland known for its love of ‘four on the floor’ rhythm, to approach these complex rhythmic patterns?

Halonen: My background has been playing funk soul, r’n’b stuff. Jazz has also been there. It was really challenging at first. There was the cultural difference of how to explain things, and Noël has also gotten a bit better with how to make a European musician understand what he means. At first I developed some code solving methods. How does this go, are they triplets, or 16th notes? Where’s the one? That kind of stuff. Only to find out that there is no one kind of solution.

“There are different
to our music.”

Once I had learned and archived quite a bit of Beninese stuff, the natural next step was to play with it. On our first record I brought some songs that I had prepared that were based on the grooves we studied with Noël during my first trip to Benin in 2009. Most of the songs are based on some traditional actual Beninese grooves. Noël then brought some songs of his and then we had sessions where we put our ideas together. Then we played and developed the material with Juha and Sampo, and when it was solid enough, we brought in the horn players and the rest.

Then also there were a few songs that were made in the spirit of Benin: ‘This could be a Beninese groove, but it is not.’ That was already in that stage when we were playing with that material. One song, for example, The Gong, is based on a Beninese groove that I remembered wrong. [laughs]

A handy skill to have…

Halonen: Yeah, to not remember exactly. [laughs] But with the new record, it has been more that we sat down and did things from scratch together with Noël. Not so much prepared stuff.

How was it the first time when you stepped on stage together a couple of years ago in Benin?

Halonen: It was really nice; there were a lot of people. We played at Villa Karo, because they organised these monthly concerts there. It was a real festival feeling. We also played in Cotonou in a small club and then at the French cultural centre there, which is pretty much ‘The Stage’ where everything takes place in Cotonou. The shows went well. People were dancing and enjoying, but they were also a little bit like, ‘What is this’?

Saïzonou: The crowd was surprised. [laughs] They could feel the tradition in everything we were playing. But on the other side also – ‘What did they do with it?’ It is not something they usually listen to it. It is different for them also. But we had a lot of congratulations at the end.

Halonen: It was very funny that everybody was coming up to us on the streets of Gran Popo to talk the next day. All of a sudden the villagers started to notice us. The Grand-Popo concert was definitely one of the most unique experiences of my life. The people, the more excited they got, they started coming on stage from the audience, and started to dance in between us.

How have Finnish crowds responded? The audiences here have a stereotype that it takes three or four songs to warm them up.

Saïzonou: [laughs]

Halonen: I think it has been like that. People have been like ‘Huh’?

Saïzonou: It changes from crowd to crowd. We try our best to make them feel good about our music.

Halonen: There are different dimensions to our music: there’s the African influence, the jazz influence, a lot of stuff in between. It’s fair to say there is definitely something for the brain and the hips. The show is usually designed that we tease the brain first and then shake the hips later. It’s very easy for Finnish people to approach it. They are not required to dance immediately, but rather are seduced by it little by little.

When we were playing in Finland, one of the things that people liked was that we were so enthusiastic ourselves. I guess it’s because our music is the stuff that we felt had to be done since we had not heard music like that before. We have been always super thrilled about every show. Of course, when you see enthusiastic people performing, it transcends. Even though we have been playing in a jazz idiom at times, it has never been too serious.

This past summer you also played in other countries for the first time. How did that go?

Halonen: We did two trips to Italy. The first trip was to a festival called Bari in Jazz. We also played there in a refugee camp, an asylum seekers centre. It was an amazing experience. They inhabit something like 1,500 asylum seekers and they have facilities for 400. It was in the middle of this military zone. Probably to some extent it was a PR stunt, but it certainly was an experience for us and them. The feedback was ‘nobody has smiled here for years, and now you bring this.’

How do you prepare for a show like that?

Halonen: I didn’t know what to do by going there, we just had to be ourselves and hope it would be enough. For me, as the person who speaks the most to the audience, it was definitely something to figure out. What to say to those people? The strategy I chose was not to say anything, let the organisers to do the talking and try to win them over with the music. Approximately the last third of the show, when we had gotten people dancing and smiling, we felt the crowd was on our side, and then we started to talk more.

What are your songs about?

Halonen: They are sung mostly in the language of Goun. There’s some Yoruba language there and a phrase here and there in English. The songs are about a lot of stuff. On the first record there was a lot of political and philosophical content.

Saïzonou: For example, in the first record we had Adande, a song about the men, how they behave when they have a lot of money, and how they want to live their life. I find in the Bible that what ever secular things you have that make you rich – money, houses and children – at the end you are not going to bring anything with you in the coffin. Another song is Africa. That song is about the reality of how things are going in Africa. We have a lot of natural resources, but we don’t use them for the development of the continent. We have to think about it.

Album launch for
Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble
on 6 November in Poppari,
Jyväskylä; 7 November at Etnosoi!
Festival in Korjaamo, Helsinki
and 9 November in Tampere.

Another song, Agamafa na hèdé, is about when you are living a miserable life, you are suffering, you need to find something better; you need to make your life better and easier.

Halonen: Agamafa is a beautiful song; it describes the situation as a metaphor. There’s a bird who is seeking for a tree to land and make a nest. After going to the tree you might figure out that it’s not actually a good tree and the neighbours are no good for me, and the only chance is to go back to the air and seek another tree. The story is told through that metaphor.

How would you then describe your journey so far together as a metaphor?

Halonen: [long pause] The road is long. [laughs]

Saïzonou: Exactly.

Halonen: But it was fast.

James O’Sullivan