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Ferry Djimmy

Langue disponible : anglais
Benin's Ferry Djimmy is known, if at all, for a small handful of wildly energetic records issued during the early to mid-'70s. These include a pair of singles for France's Pathe label, and Rhythm Revolution, an obscure, self-released, classic Afrobeat album composed of eight raw, garage-funk selections from Benin, sung in the Yoruba language. In addition to his singing and composing, Djimmy was a formidable multi-instrumentalist, proficient on guitar, saxophone, drums/percussion, and keyboards. Though it is rumored that only 200 copies of Rhythm Revolution survived a warehouse fire, its reputation was preserved by Beninese, European, and Caribbean DJs who spread the word. England's Acid Jazz label acquired the rights and remastered and released it in 2022. Djimmy's life was as legendary as his music if not more so. He was born Jean Maurille Ogoudjobi in 1939 in Benin, one of 44 children (not a typo)! He acquired his nickname from the Yoruba phrase meaning "please forgive me," as he was a smart, precocious, and unruly child. By some accounts, his household was quite musical and he began experimenting with several instruments early on. Whether or not he had formal lessons is not known. After graduating from college in the late '50s, Djimmy became an elementary school teacher. A tall, imposing, athletic young man, he moonlighted as a boxer. When not doing either he indulged in the emerging nightlife scene in Cotonou, where local folklore, Congolese rhumba, highlife, and adaptations of Cuban rhumba, merengue, and son were enjoyed by local audiences who also appreciated blues, jazz, and R&B from the West. During the 1960s Djimmy emigrated to Paris, where he joined the police force as a beat cop. In his spare time, he jammed with other musicians in nightclubs and began establishing a reputation as a formidable vocalist and multi-instrumentalist. He served as a bodyguard to future French president Jacques Chirac, who was just beginning his political career. In 1971, he managed to secure a contract with Pathe and released his first two singles: "A Were Were We Coco" b/w "Egbemi Black" and "Aluma Loranmi Nichai'' b/w "Toba Walemi." While they received some airplay and made juke boxes in bars and cafes attended by African emigres, Djimmy's songs generated little interest and by 1974 he'd returned to Cotonou. By the time he'd come back, Benin was under the leadership of Marxist-Leninist Mathieu Kerekou, whom Djimmy met shortly after re-entering the country. He resumed playing gigs on the Cotonou nightclub scene. Kerekou was impressed by the young musician's charisma and tall, unique look and the pair became fast friends. Kerekou thought he saw in Djimmy a personality that would attract the younger generation with a funky musical message that they'd appreciate more than political speeches. He provided Djimmy with a modest budget to create his own company, Revolution Records. During the mid-'70s, Benin was under the revolutionary spell of Fela Kuti's Nigerian Afrobeat and Djimmy was no exception. He learned its musical language inside and out and combined it with the other sounds he'd been exploring in clubs. He recorded Rhythm Revolution in Cotonou at the Satel studio. Deciding to focus his energies on the rawness and immediacy of his musical vision, Djimmy played most of the instruments himself: guitars, saxophones, keyboards, and drums/percussion. Rhythm Revolution was unlike anything that had previously emerged from Cotonou. It offered eight self-composed exercises in raw, polyrhythmic funk, psychedelic blues, garage R&B, and more, all sung in Yoruba. Though its influences –- James Brown, Fela, Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton, Mandrill, and others -– its rhythmic sensibility and revolutionary lyrics were rooted deeply in the struggle of Benin. Its album cover, designed by artist Gratien Zossou, was inspired by the anti-apartheid struggle of the African National Congress in South Africa and the Black Panther Party in the U.S. It captured the radical spirit of the times in much the same way Kuti's album art did. Kerekou desperately wanted the album to succeed to further his own political agenda. He and Djimmy designed the release campaign to donate proceeds from sales to a medical and service organization ministering to Benin's disabled community. The set received airplay on state-run radio and Kerekou ordered his entire administration and department ministers to buy copies. Few obeyed the dictum, but it hardly mattered: the record didn't sell and the project was a total commercial disaster. After the marketing plan for Rhythm Revolution failed to even recoup its recording costs, let alone export Marxist revolutionary zeal to the masses, Kerekou gave up on Djimmy. On the advice of Fela, Djimmy and his family moved to Lagos, Nigeria in 1977. They often visited one another, and Djimmy also hung out with highlife star Orlando Julius, Sierra Leone's Afropop pioneer Geraldo Pino, and juju music progenitor King Sunny Ade. In early 1980, the Beninese musician got to meet his longtime idol and hero, Mohammed Ali, who was in Lagos on a state visit to convince Nigeria to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics. After his time in the spotlight ended, Djimmy formed a family band called the Sunshine Sisters of Africa. They toured locally and regionally and issued two albums for Nigeria's Tarentone label, Africa in 1983 and African Dish in 1985. They recorded a number of other tapes that were never released. Djimmy, a heavy cigarette smoker for most of his life, suffered a massive heart attack and died in May 1996 at home in Lagos. His entire recorded output consisted of Rhythm Revolution and the Pathe singles. African and English DJs kept the spirit of Rhythm Revolution alive by spinning its tracks –- some bootlegged on cassettes -- in clubs, while the album fetched fantastic sums when it could even be located. Nearly 50 years after its original release, the U.K.'s Acid Jazz label licensed the recording and remastered it from physical sources. It added singles and unissued tracks and re-released it in 2022.
© Thom Jurek /TiVo
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