The Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble collaborates across countries, continents, and cultures to release its self-titled fifth album and deliver a message about staying strong through uncertain times.
With recent world events spurring the new evolution of their signature Finn funk-meets - Voodoo rhythms sound, Finnish-Beninese-Tanzanian afrobeat funk band Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble is sending a message to listeners about the importance of maintaining one’s self-respect and dignity, and staying strong through difficult and uncertain times.
Led by Finnish guitarist Janne Halonen and Beninese Singer/Percussionist Noël Saïzonou, the 8-piece Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble is set to release its self-titled, fifth album (out May 21, 2021 on Flowfish Records). The album’s nine tracks draw inspiration from West African Voodoo traditions, Afrobeat, Jazz, Soul, and conscious Hip-Hop, with all songs being sung in Saïzonou’s native Goun language.
Due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, the new album was entirely imagined, written, and recorded remotely from Helsinki, Cotonou, and Lisbon without most of the band members ever coming together physically once in during the entire process. The first song sketches were put down in May of 2020, and from there, circumstances necessitated that the band embark on an entirely new kind of music song-writing process, which involved bouncing ideas in Zoom sessions and sending demos between Finland and Africa.
“For this album, we wanted to return back to the 70’s-influenced sound of our first record,” says Halonen, “and the plan was for the whole album to be written and recorded over the summer during a few massive studio sessions. But then everything was cancelled all of a sudden. After a few months of total shut down, we gathered ourselves, and began learning how to work remotely.”
Through the month of July of last year, Halonen spent long hours teaching Benin-based Noël how to use entirely unfamiliar recording software by sharing his screen over Zoom. It was a unique challenge, reflects Halonen, “when I’ve worked with Finnish partners and colleagues, it's very easy to write things down or just demonstrate stuff. But when somebody is like 6 thousand miles away, and he doesn't speak the same language as you, everything needs to be demoed very carefully.”
Eventually, the two were able to begin exchanging ideas with one another and the album’s unique sound started to take shape as those initial challenges evolved into musical nuances.
Fans can get a taste of those nuances ahead of the album’s release and a preview of what’s to come on the single, “Min He Mon Ébgé - The One Who Sees Today” (available across all streaming platforms worldwide on May 7th, 2021). The single, which will also be the first track on the new album, imparts the message that it’s important to take care of one’s craft and general well-being, since nobody knows what tomorrow brings.
The track will also feature a stunning video shot in Cotonou. “We came up with the idea that it would be really nice to shoot a video that would show the side of Cotonou that we have known and come to love,” says Halonen. “We wanted to counter the dark narrative and those tropes in which Africa is always shown in a negative light. You always get the bad news, the disease and the hunger, and the guerillas kidnapping, and this and that. But it’s easy to overlook the fact that there are almost a billion people there, living about their daily lives and also experiencing a lot of joy and beauty.”
The second track of the album entitled “The Craft” features guest rapper from Zimbabwe, Synik, who currently lives in Lisbon. Synik’s lyrics narrate his own personal story as an example of the importance of maintaining one’s self-respect and dignity, honing one’s craft, and treating other people as equals. While Halonen and Synik had not met in person prior to the collaboration, Synik’s words proved strangely synchronistic with the message of the ensemble’s full album and quickly led to talk of further collaboration, with Halonen agreeing to produce several songs for the rapper’s upcoming projects.
Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble was formed in the winter of 2012, when guitarist Janne Halonen, bassist Sampo Riskilä, and drummer Juha Räsänen travelled to Benin, West Africa to study local music and collaborate with singer/percussionist Noël Saïzonou. During the record making process, the quartet extended into an octet and the group’s first full album was released in May of 2013.
The group has since released several albums including Fire, Sweat and Pastis in 2014, The Road Is Long: Live at Savoy Theater in 2016, and ja We Are Together in 2018.Helsinki-Cotonou Ensemble has performed in 17 countries and received lots of critical acclaim.
Their self-titled fifth album will be released worldwide by flowfish.records and distributed by Broken Silence.