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Oh Bembeya!

Sekou and Selifou.
Photo: Banning Eyre
Sekou Diabaté and Salifou Kaba
Sekou Diabaté picks up the story. "The first big success among the songs of Bembeya Jazz was Demba Tigala, which I [wrote and] sang myself in 1964. That song was a total success in the country. Women even designed a fabric for it. It speaks to a woman with her baby: 'Be careful. Pay attention. Don't joke around too much.' Like that." This was the year that Bembeya Jazz recorded its second album, for Guinea's Syliphone label, and the first on which Sekou plays Hawaiian guitar. At one point, a doctor friend gave him a 10-string pedal steel, but he found it too complicated and cumbersome and "had the sense" to find the small, 6-string Hofner he still uses today. Bembeya Jazz's present number-two guitarist, Mamady Kouyaté, calls it "the instrument that makes people cry."
Making people cry is exactly what Bembeya Jazz did when they went to Cuba in 1964. The musicians were received by Fidel Castro, and they astonished Cuban singers with their renditions of famous songs. They returned to Guinea determined to triumph in the national performance competitions Sekou Toure had instituted. In the first competition, Bembeya had been disappointed, ranking only as runners up for the region, alongside Kébendo Jazz of Gékédougou. "We went back to Beyla angry," Salifou recalled. "We wanted to come in first, so we started looking hard. We went to the griots, the old people, and in the moonlight where the children sing and clap. We went and listened, and we took these songs, because they were popular. So now, at the second competition, we came in first."

The village folklore in Bembeya's songs was an important element in its appeal. All eight songs on the new Bembeya come from the band's vast repertoire of classics, and five of them are based on popular folklore. Gbapie, with its slow, sentimental opening section featuring Sekou on Hawaiian guitar, and its rowdy 6/8 wind-up at the end, is a love song, comparing a beautiful girl to a pear, and admiring her white teeth. The fabulously swinging Akoukouwe with its irresistible vocal hook and steaming guitar work from Sekou, has lyrics that evoke a joyful scene of children singing and drumming in the moonlight. But some of the other songs here reflect deeper, darker African realities. Take Lefa, a song by Demba Camara.

"Lefa," Salifou told me, "is a song sung when young girls are circumcised. In the neighbourhood, when your child has been good, she has come to help you pound millet, or to help you wash clothes on the day she is circumcised. Fifteen days later, they take her to put on other clothes. Then at night, everyone comes to bring a little gift." Lefa is a fan that the girl and others use to cool off during this ritual. The song is sung from the mother's point of view, and in translating the words, Salifou made it all sound routine, even wholesome. "You must wave the fan. My first girl is circumcised today. There is friendship. It is today that I will show that she has helped me."

Another song, Soli Au Wassoulou, given to Bembeya Jazz by Demba's mother, also deals with excision, or female genital mutilation, as it is called in universally disapproving Western venues. "There was one very impolite girl," said Salifou. "When you greeted her, she would insult you. When she was circumcised, she even hit and wounded the old woman who was doing that. So now after fifteen days, they brought the new clothes for the girls, and everyone brought the gifts. But as this girl was rude, her mother had died. So when it was time to give the gifts, her second mother came with her gift, singing that what this girl did was not right." These songs possess irresistible rhythms and melodies - good enough for most of us - but their invocation of traditional life was part of the thrill for the Guinean public in the '60s, and certainly contributed to Bembeya's two decisive victories in national competitions.

"We had had lots of success in the capital," Sekou told me. "Then the National Political Bureau proposed that we become a national band like Keletigui et ses Tambourinis and Bala et ses Baladins. We were now the third group. That was now in 1965. We moved to Conakry in 1966." With the addition of Horoya Band, Guinea's classic lineup of four national bands was complete.

Mangala remembers the move as happening in 1967, and Salifou in 1968. In any case, once the band got to Conakry, life changed dramatically. "When you are national," said Salifou, "you become truly professional, so we did nothing other than music. We were paid by the government and we rehearsed every day starting in the morning. In the evening, everyone went to meet their friends, their girlfriends, parents. But at night, starting at nine, there was dancing in the capital, right up until two in the morning." The national bands played every night except Friday, when there were obligatory neighbourhood meetings, and Monday, the day of rest.

This feature first appeared in fRoots 233, November 2002


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