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Oh Bembeya!

Bembeya horns.
Photo: Banning Eyre
Bembeya horns, Angoulême Festival,
May 2002
Each morning after breakfast, the band was shuttled to a radically different setting, a rock club called Le Nef, where, amid the aroma of stale beer and cleaning fluids, and photographs of France's grungiest rock groups, Bembeya set up to rehearse and record. The chef d'orchestre, Mohammed Achken Kaba, gave a little speech as the band was waiting in the monastery parking lot that first day. "We must preserve authenticity," he proclaimed, a little pompously, "but also leave room for creativity." His main point was that the record had to be good. It would not do to have people saying they preferred the old ones.
The musicians set up on the stage at Le Nef, horns seated on the right, guitars on the left at the back, singers in front with percussionists behind, and Sekou at stage left with clear sight lines to everyone. They started out with a lashing version of Sabou, or The Cause, a song that star vocalist Sekouba 'Bambino' Diabaté brought to the band in the early 1980s. "You see how we work," Sekou said to me during a break. "It's very democratic. Everyone gives their ideas." I had seen some lively exchanges among the musicians, but clearly, Sekou was the boss. It was he who determined which horn break would signal the rhythm change, which player would take the solo, how many times the chorus would repeat before the guitar break, and whether the tempo was a little too fast or slow. This was one well-oiled machine and they worked with an efficiency I've rarely seen in an African band rehearsal. By the end of the day, they had worked four songs hard, playing them over and over until each was perfect.

Sekou was born in 1944 in the region of Faranah, near the border with Sierra Leone. "Music," he said, "was a family affair, from generation to generation, from father to son. My father played the balafon and the acoustic guitar in the traditional Manding griot style, with fingers, without chords. Then you'd put the capo on to change the key. My father [El Hadj Djeli Fode Diabaté (d.) 1988)] was among the first to introduce the guitar to Guinea." Sekou said that there was never a time he didn't hear guitar music. "It was in the cradle with me." His father sent him to Koranic school, but when he asked for a guitar, the old man ordered one from France, a steel resonator guitar, which Sekou began playing in 1954. In that way, Sekou avoided the typical African guitarists' struggle against parents mortified by the idea of a career in music, but he and his father did not always see eye to eye. "He wanted me to play music," said Sekou, "but he also wanted me to be strong in the Koranic spirit, and to become a griot, able to find the words to council people in the spirit of Islam - all that. That was his desire, but as it turned out, my destiny was to go toward the modern."

Sekou first heard electric griot guitar recordings when he moved to the capital, Conakry, in 1959. His cousin Kerfala 'Papa' Diabaté was playing guitar with the national orchestra at the time, and gave Sekou his first lessons. The next year, Sekou was invited to play in Kissidougou, far in the south of Guinea. His stay was brief. "The reason I left Kissidougou is a bit of a story," he told me. "You know that I had been to Koranic school. Well, I was a bit of a fanatic, and I had gone into a boutique where they sold alcohol. One day, I was angry and I broke a lot of bottles."

This feature first appeared in fRoots 233, November 2002


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