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Oh Bembeya!

In 1960, when Guinea's new president Sekou Toure established a system of state-funded bands to help unify, update and preserve national culture, he was probably embarking on the most significant initiative of his presidency. No one can deny the influence of these state bands with their marriage of jazz, Afro-Cuban music and roots traditions of the Manding, Fula and other ethnic groups, not only on Guinean music, but on emerging modern styles throughout West and Central Africa. Even if none of these great bands had survived, this would remain a lasting achievement, one that dwarfs Toure's shabby political and economic legacy. But at least one of these seminal bands does survive, in amazingly good form, and as Bembeya Jazz prepared to enter the recording studio for the first time in fourteen years, its twelve current members left little doubt that this pivotal era in African music lives on, in substance as well as spirit.

Sekou Diabate.
Photo: Banning Eyre
Sekou Diabaté, Angoulême Festival, May 2002
It was clear the moment Bembeya hit the stage for a mid-day set at the Musiques Métisses festival in Angoulême, France, last May. All the classic elements were in place: three dancing, harmonising male singers; three elderly horn players punching out sassy embellishment lines and stepping out for jaunty solos; percussion, bass and drums working together to infuse swinging pop numbers with the ancient rhythms of the Guinean forest. Bembeya's signature, three-guitar section were locking up a dense tangle of melody and rhythm topped by the exquisite showmanship of the band's star player and arranger, Sekou Bembeya Diabaté, known to African music fans everywhere as 'Diamond Fingers.' The singers moved in synchrony, their voices buoyed by a matrix of bubbling rhythm and spelled by brisk blasts of melody from the brass section. Sekou Diabaté's warmly growling voice and guitar histrionics pumped up the festival crowd with rocket fuel. There were a few rough edges, but nothing that couldn't be ironed out during the week of rehearsals that would follow the band's appearances in France and Germany, and precede the actual recording. The end result, Bembeya (Marabi), is one of the most swinging, sweet and satisfying African band releases to emerge in many years.

Much credit for all of this goes to Musiques Métisses Artistic Director, Christian Mousset (fR211/212), who is launching his new label, Marabi, with an emphasis on what he calls "the patrimony of urban African music," including new recordings by the Super Rail Band from Bamako, 77-year-old Wendo Kolosoy from the Congo, and Bembeya Jazz. Mousset's high-minded phrase belies the rambunctious zeal of this music, and makes an almost comic contrast with the reality that most of these musicians have been neglected both at home and abroad for far too long, languishing in inactivity and near poverty while music with far less originality, punch and imagination has been marketed to worldwide audiences. They say life provides few second chances, but here's one, and thank God, Mousset, and the European Commission (who are supporting his work) for it.

Speaking of God, Mousset made the interesting choice of housing the mostly Muslim musicians of Bembeya Jazz in a Catholic monastery in Angoulême, "with the priests," as he put it merrily. "This is a prison," groused percussionist Papa Kouyaté - perhaps the band's most cheerless member - upon seeing a sign that read, "Silence after 10:00," posted in the dormitory hallway, but I had the impression that most of the musicians appreciated the peace and quiet. On our first morning with the priests, I entered the humble dining room and was surprised find the musicians drinking coffee out of porcelain bowls. Unaware that this is routine in France, I asked, "Don't they have any coffee mugs?" "Shhhhh!" replied veteran Bembeya vocalist Salifou Kaba, adding with a nervous look, "We are near to God here. We mustn't ask questions."

The religious humor had begun. By the end of the week I spent with the band, the musicians were engaging in lively repartee with the matronly woman who served us breakfast, shocking and titillating her in any way possible, as by confiding, falsely, that Sekou Diabaté had seven wives. Salifou is the Bembeya's chief joker. One morning, he told the story of the greedy marabout and the generous 'fetisheur' who died on the same day and were buried on two floors of the same tomb. When ants swarmed into the marabout's tomb, and a fountain of cold water sprang from the fetisheur's, people objected and the tombs were switched. "But now," said Salifou, "the ants came to the low floor, where the marabout had been moved, and the fountain reappeared above where they had put the fetisheur." "That's justice," laughed Sekou. "God's justice."

This feature first appeared in fRoots 233, November 2002


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