COTONOU, Benin (CelebrityAccess News Service) — Gnonnas Pedro of Africando, died of prostate cancer Thursday morning August 12th, 2004 at his home in Cotonou, Benin; the city of his birth 62 years ago.
Gnonnas was a lifelong devotee of two historically related kinds of music: the traditional songs and dances of Benin's Fon and Yoruba peoples, and the modern music of Cuba. When he began singing professionally in the early 1960s, he called his band Pedro y Sus Panchos, and while the name was Spanish, the music was a blend of Cuban and local styles such as highlife and agbadja. This blend defined his sound throughout his career.
Though opportunities for professional musicians were always quite limited in Benin, Gnonnas Pedro performed in Cotonou and around the country for the better part of 40 years. He recorded with Sus Panchos in the '60s, with Orchestre Poly-Rythmo in the '70s, and with Ses Dadjes in the '80s. In 1984 he made an album with the Senegalese producer Ibrahima Sylla, beginning a professional relationship that lasted the rest of his life. The following year his Syllart single "Les Femmes d'Abord" was a hit in many parts of West Africa. Two retrospective CDs were released in France in the early '90s, and though Gnonnas never became famous outside of Benin, he was admired by European and American cognoscenti of African salsa.
His stature rose dramatically in 1996, when Ibrahima Sylla invited him to join Africando after the death of the band's most celebrated singer, Pape Serigne Seck. Though his vocal style was very different from Seck's, Gnonnas enabled Africando to sustain its success. He recorded four albums with the widely popular African salsa band – Gombo Salsa, Baloba!, Mandali and last year's Martina – contributing songs such as "Dagamasi," "Musica en Vérité," "Dacefo," "Hwomevonon" and "Azo Nkplon" to its repertoire. He also recorded an album of his own, Agbadja, for Syllart in 1999.
With Africando Gnonnas toured Europe and Africa, winning fans in every country with his broad smile and energetic dancing. He brought the band to Cotonou twice; on the second occasion the President of Benin honored him for his charitable works at home and his advancement of Beninois music abroad. Gnonnas was with Africando for its momentous U.S. concert debut at Lincoln Center, New York City, in 1997, and again for its return to an American stage just this May, when Africando appeared to great acclaim at the West Coast Salsa Congress in Los Angeles. A tour of North America planned for this month had to be postponed when Gnonnas was hospitalized in Paris. When doctors recognized that his cancer was advanced and terminal, he was flown to Cotonou yesterday.
He died only hours after returning home to his wife and children.