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Oh Bembeya!

Mangala and Dore Clement.
Photo: Banning Eyre
Drummer Mangala & saxist Dore Clement
Over time, Leo became friendly with Sekou Toure. "He told me right in the beginning," recalled Leo. "He said, 'The Western press is calling me a communist.' And it was true. Time magazine ran a lot of articles because the Russians and the Czechs were in there trying to run the country. And Sekou Toure told me, 'I am not a communist. I don't like them, but they are helping us and the West isn't. I am an African, and what I am trying to do is create national unity in this country because the French have kept all these various tribal groups separated, fighting against each other. I want everybody to know that this is one country now. This is Guinea and everybody should call themselves a Guinean, not a Sousou or a Fula or whatever.' This is what he was trying to do with the music. 'Guinea, Guinea, La Guinea, La Guinea.' These are the songs they were singing."
Toure stopped radio stations from playing Western music. He allowed bands to perform it, but not record it. The music they composed and recorded had to have some folklore basis. "I think it was a good move," said Leo, conceding that it was radical. "When I went to Beyla, Bembeya were practicing a number called Wassoulou, an old Malinke hunter's song. You could feel it. It was really folkloric and yet it was arranged for an orchestra"

Sekou Diabaté recalls his amazement when this energetic American showed up with recording gear. "It was extraordinary," he said. "It made me think, 'Hey, this music is serious. We really have to work.' It encouraged us."

Another Bembeya musician who was there from the start was drummer Conde Mory Kouyaté, a.k.a. Mangala. Mangala was born in 1940 in Kankan, at the edge of Malinke country. "I started playing the tam-tam there in the village at twelve," he told me. "Then I went to take my sister to Kankan, because she was to marry, and the youngsters there taught me to play goumbe, Ivoirian folklore. My real work was as a tailor, operating a sewing machine, making women's robes. When I finished my stay in Kankan, I again accompanied my sister to Beyla. Beyla is even closer to Cote D'Ivoire, so I kept playing my goumbe there. This is where I picked up the name Mangala." The name comes from a Hindi film popular at that time. There was a character named Mangala who was always playing a drum. "So everyone started calling me Mangala. They would call that when they saw me at the side of the road. I even got into a fight over this. I said, 'I don't want to be called Mangala!'" But Mangala he was and would remain.

Mangala had joined Emile Conde's Sylli Jazz in 1959. "Before that, I played rumba, tango, blues, morna, even some Guinean songs," he told me. "But when we got independence, the government changed music." Eventually, the members of Orchestra Beyla decided they needed a new name. "In the town of Beyla," recalls Mangala, "there is a river that crosses the town. We call it Bembeya." Bembeya is an old Malinke word meaning something like the agreement between two towns. "So we said, we're going to change our name to Bembeya. The first governor was there and he said, 'Yes. That's good. Bembeya Jazz.'"

Soon after the band recorded its 1962 debut with Leo Sarkisian, the singing stars that would complete the classic Bembeya sound arrived on the scene. Born in 1943 in Kankan, Salifou Kaba came to Beyla as a cabinet maker. "I had my brother there who had done his studies in Havana," Salifou told me. "He came back with lots of Cuban records and at my workshop, I sang along with those records. During my vacations, I went to Kankan to buy wood." On one of these trips, Salifou recruited a friend with whom he had studied carpentry, Aboubacar Demba Camara. Demba came, joining Salifou in the workshop, and also in singing those Cuban songs. "We would bring the records home and sing together. We knew all the songs. So there was a tourist hotel in town called Relais. Every night we found Bembeya already in place, but there were no real singers. There was a girl, but it was not really the thing. Everybody sang."

Sekou Diabaté had noticed these two singing carpenters, and he invited them down to the Relais. "We went that night at about 8 o'clock," said Salifou. "Sekou had his acoustic guitar. The tourists were there, eating. We introduced a song and started to sing. My voice was higher, more feminine than Demba's - right up to the present. Demba was a tenor. So they wanted to take me, but I said, 'I can't come into the group if Demba doesn't come also.' So that's how it happened. They said, 'Okay, if that's how it is, Demba will come too.'"


This feature first appeared in fRoots 233, November 2002

 

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