Primary Instrument: Band/orchestra
Bembeya Jazz National - band/ensemble from Guinea.
The year 2002 was a significant one,it marks the first new recording from Guinea's Bembeya Jazz in 14 years. It is also the started an exciting new chapter in the life of one of Africa's greatest dance bands. Bembeya Jazz's signature four-guitar section is crowned by the sterling lead guitar work of Sekou Bembeya Diabaté-a.k.a. Diamond Fingers. The band's three singers still deliver timeless vocal harmonies topped by the sweet, high tenor of Salifou Kaba. Two of the three players in Bembeya's punchy brass section-Dory Clement on tenor sax, and chef d'orchestre Mohamed Kaba on trumpet-joined Bembeya back in the 1960s, and their lines still blare with the pride and enthusiasm of Guinea's first decade of independence. Nailing down the band's sensational, hard-swinging rhythm section is drummer Conde Mory Mangala, who has served as Bembeya Jazz's beating heart from the very beginning. The authenticity, spirit, groove and singular creativity of this powerhouse group remains fully intact.
In 1961, Guinea's visionary first president Sekou Touré had already begun his program of creating regional and national performance arts groups to promote the African spirit of a new nation. This was the year that a band was formed in Beyla, a remote town in Guinea's far south-east corner, near the border with Cote D'Ivoire. At the time, Sekou Diabaté had left the home of his musical griot family and was making a bit of a reputation for himself as a guitarist in Conakry and Kankan. When his uncle found him and told him he was being recruited to play in a new band in faraway Beyla, Sekou at first refused. I said, 'No, I'm not going.' My uncle said to me, 'Sekou, I am going to tell you. I am the young brother of your father. If you do not come with me, I am going to report this to Kankan. You know our laws. I am capable of obliging you to come.' So I prepared my things and we went to Beyla.
With Sekou's help, the band would not be confined to Beyla for long. The musicians took their name from the Bembeya River, which runs through Beyla, and they went to work. Soon, they were winning regional and national contests, and by the mid-60s they were certified as a national band and moved to the capital, Conakry. There, alongside Keletigui et ses Tambourinis, Balla et ses Balladins and Horoya Band, Bembeya Jazz played as often as six nights a week, each band competing for the favour of an eager public. In 1963, singers and friends Demba Camara and Salifou Kaba had joined Bembeya Jazz, and Salifou recalls that with the move to the capital, the pressure was on to develop exciting new repertoire. Every week, we tried to create new songs to attract the clientele, said Salifou. We had to create. That's how it was.
And create they did. Bembeya introduced the venerable folklore of the Manding people in its epic song Regard Sur le Passé, the winning entry in Sekou Touré's contest to commemorate the great Manding leader, Almamy Samory Touré. Sekou Diabaté brought two rhythm guitarists into the band, and varied his performance by using Hawaiian slide guitar on some songs. In the early '70s, Bembeya introduced dancing girls and began putting on a spectacular stage show. All these innovations were widely imitated.
1973 brought the tragic death of Aboubacar Demba Camara in a Dakar car crash. It took time to regroup, but before long Bembeya Jazz was back in the game. Sekou says that each of the national bands had its own arranger and arranging style, and that the competition was fierce, but friendly. We saw each other, he recalled, We greeted. But we also competed. One would say, 'I'm going to be number one.' Then the other would say, 'It's me who is going to be number one!
By 1980, Guinea was beginning to experience serious economic difficulties, and the club scene in Conakry was becoming less active. But by this time, Bembeya had found another star singer, Sekouba Bambino Diabaté who brought new life and fame to this venerable band. Shortly before his death in 1984, President Sekou Touré de-nationalised the bands, giving each one a nightclub it could use to generate financial support. Sekou Diabaté recalls the meeting in which the president presented Bembeya Jazz with its own nightspot, Club Bembeya. The president said, 'If this works for you, no problem. But if it doesn't work, we will see what else we can do for you.' But then, a few months later, he was dead. Things were harder for the dance bands after that. A new generation of Guineans turned its ear to younger artists, especially singing stars, like Bambino, who eventually set off on his own solo career. Bembeya Jazz played showcases when the opportunity arose, but most of the players were forced to find other sources of income.
During the 1990s, Sekou Diabaté made recordings with his wife Djanka Diabaté, and he also produced an exceptional acoustic album, “Diamond Fingers.” In 1998, he was living in Paris when he got the call to return to Guinea so that Bembeya Jazz could play the 100th anniversary of Samory Touré. The band was not broken up, said Sekou. But in life, there are ups and downs, good moments and bad moments. So you wait. We were waiting. Bembeya Jazz had not recorded since 1988, so this was a significant reunion, and it sparked the present chapter in the band's history. Soon after that, Christian Mousset heard Bembeya Jazz and proposed that they return to the recording studio and the world stage.
Bembeya Jazz played their first European show in over a decade at the Musiques Metisses festival of 2002. After the festival, the twelve musicians stayed in Angoulême to record a historic album “Bembeya Jazz.”
This is a retrospective, featuring new versions of a number of songs from the crucial mid-60s era when Bembeya Jazz worked to win the favor of their new Conakry audience. Once again, Bembeya Jazz is out to prove itself, to say, We are here! In a time when so many of Africa's great independence-era dance bands are no longer with us, the revival of Bembeya Jazz is a blessing for Afropop fans everywhere, and it is sure to provide lasting inspiration to a new generation of African musicians.
Source: Banning Eyre