Ezin Houngninou was born in the village of Kodji, Benin, in 1927. Kodji is a farming village located fifteen kilometres from Savalou, a market town where two national roads cross, located 230 kms north of Cotonou. Ezin, in his own words, is not 'the inventor of the Toba Hanyé rhythm' but he is the trendsetter. The style of Toba Hanyé that he developed starting in the 1950s has become the template for all subsequent artists.
Ezin started his career in the late 1940s singing Tchingoumé, one of the most popular rhythms in southern Benin. But very soon he received some crucial advice from an older musician. Gbaguidi Kpénou Akpovi, father of Athanase Akpovi, told Ezin that his voice was more suited to the Toba Hanyé rhythm, a style of music performed by an ensemble consisting of the bass lamellophone, gongs, percussion and flute. Ezin took to the Toba Hanye so quickly that it soon earned him the nickname Ezin Gangnon: the more the gangnon (gong) player kept the tempo steady the more inspired Ezin became, improvising topical lyrics to the delight of his audience.
By the early 1950s Ezin was one of the more popular performers in Abomey, the capital of the pre-colonial Kingdom of Dahomey. In 1957 he found a benefactor, Aignon Emmanuel, a successful trader from Savalou who lived in Togo, who agreed to produce his first 45. This single led to two dozen more and helped Ezin build his audience. By the early 1970s, Ezin was confident enough to move to Cotonou, the capital. For the next three decades Ezin Gangnon kept his fans dancing with a steady stream of Toba Hanyé releases. His discography includes twenty-five 45 rpm singles, fourteen 33rpm LPs, thirty-two cassettes and five VCDs.
This is a beautiful video, check out the size of the bass lamellophone! Great dancing as well.
Here, for your listening pleasure, is a 1990s cassette that features a mature Ezin Gangnon, with four decades of performing experience behind his songs. The steady groove is punctuated by flute trills that respond to Ezin Gangnon's beautiful melodies.
Download Ezin Gangnon et son Groupe Toba Hanye de Savalou
Ezin Gangnon Apape 07 - K7 jacket cover
After six decades of performing Ezin Gangnon retired, sometime between 2000 and 2010, to Kodji, the village where he was born, and devoted himself to manioc farming, performing rarely. Ezin Gangnon's three wives bore him ten children. One of his sons is carrying on the Toba Hanyé legacy, keeping the family rhythm alive. In 2014, Ezin Gangnon had a stroke that has left him bedridden.
This post is dedicated to the great, and greatly missed, Orogod blog; a site that did so much to share Benin's cultural treasures. Most of the details about Ezin's life were taken from this article, with special thanks to it's author Donatien Gbaguidi.