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Oh Bembeya!

Bembeya singers.
Photo: Banning Eyre
Bembeya singers, Angoulême Festival,
May 2002
"Why?" I asked. "Because I didn't like that. But when I broke all those bottles, the director came to me and said, 'This is what I want. There is a man here in Kissidougou, and he wants you to go to Kankan." No sooner had Sekou settled in Kankan, than it became clear that the real plan was for him to play guitar in Beyla, in the extreme east of Guinea. "Kankan already seemed far away to me," he said, "Beyla was another 250 km into the forest! When he told me we were going to Beyla, I said, 'No, I'm not going.' He said to me, 'Sekou, 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.' I prepared my things and we went to Beyla."
It was the beginning of 1961, and Beyla entrepreneur named Emile Conde had organised a band called Sylli Jazz. Taking those musicians, Sekou, trumpeter Achken Kaba and others, he was putting together a new band called Orchestre Beyla, which would later become Bembeya Jazz. Achken was eight years older than Sekou, and he understood the significance of Sekou Toure's sweeping program. "Every prefecture had to have its own orchestra," Achken told me, "its ballet, its theatre, its folkloric ensemble, its Koranic ensemble. There were artistic competitions and the regions were ranked. So it was in this spirit that Emile Conde became interested in winning the prize, and started organising young musicians."

At first, Conde's band played for dances - from 9:00 pm until morning - and they traveled to towns in nearby Cote D'Ivoire. In 1962, they recorded their first album with the help of a young Armenian-American named Leo Sarkisian. Leo would go on to become a legendary producer and broadcaster for the Voice Of America where he still works today at the age of 81. But at that time, he was working for a Hollywood record company called Tempo International, which in its quest for foreign music to use in film scores, had equipped him with rugged, portable recording gear and dispatched him to Afghanistan, then to Ghana, and now Guinea to record New Sounds From A New Nation."

Upon his arrival in Conakry, Leo was detained and liberated of his gear. But after sizing Leo up, Sekou Toure decided to work with him, equipping him with a technician, a griot guide named Sidiki Diabaté, a vehicle, and sometimes even the president's private airplane so that they could get around the country and record the new music bubbling up everywhere.

"We started going from region to region making recordings," Leo told me in 1995, still a little awestruck that Sekou Toure had actually read his first field report and invited him in for in introductory chat. "Even though this was a great opportunity for me, and I was using [these Guinean officials] to do all my recordings, they were also using me for information. Sekou Toure had established the PDG, the People's Democratic Party, and the party was establishing political cells all through the country to create national unity. So when we would go into a region and hear what ensembles and groups were singing and playing, Sekou Toure wanted to know this, to see if they were talking about political stuff. Everybody at that time was supposed to sing about the PDG." According to Leo, the musicians were only too happy to do this. He never uncovered any protesters or malcontents.

This feature first appeared in fRoots 233, November 2002


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