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Oh Bembeya!

Sekou and singers.
Photo: Banning Eyre
Sekou and singers
The band was under pressure to impress and compete, and some of their most memorable songs come from this era, including a few reprised on the new recording. The exuberant opening track, Bembeya, was the band's greeting to its new urban home, and from there, classic songs came fast and furious. "There was Armée Guinéene recalled Sekou, "which the Voice Of America played often. There was Mami Wata. That was a popular song in the Koninke language. It's about the demoness of water, Mami Wata, like the English word, water. There was Whisky Soda, Super Tentemba."
Aboubacar Koita, a.k.a. Mazo, now plays tenor sax in Bembeya Jazz. Born in Kindia in 1955, and the only musician among the forty children his father sired by his fifteen wives, Mazo recalls climbing onstage at the age of ten watch Demba Camara sing Whisky Soda. Mazo decided on the spot that music was for him. He become close friends with Demba, and even formed a tribute band in the singer's honour after he died.

"The biggest success of all was Regard Sur Le Passe, sung by Demba," Sekou told me. "That was supreme." Eric Charry writes in his book Mande Music (University of Chicago Press, 2000) that most of the horn players in Guinea's national bands had learned in military marching formations and were therefore familiar with European music, but the string players, especially the guitarists, mostly came from traditional griot backgrounds. Charry observes that it was the mixing of these two type of experience that created Guinea's ground-breaking music. Sekou agrees, and points to Regard Sur Le Passe as an important milestone in the process.

"The president was preparing for the return of human remains of the heroes who came from Gabon and Guinea - that is Almamy Samory Toure, Alpha Diallo, and Morifina Diabaté - to be buried in Guinea," Sekou told me. "He said there must be music composed for this occasion, and he sent a circular to all the national orchestras announcing a competition. So we met at Jardin du Guinea, and Hamidou Diawané, our band leader for our first 26 years, said, 'What should we do?'" Sekou suggested that they arrange a medley of griot songs about Samory, and the idea took hold. Despite his own griot background, the guitarist didn't actually know these songs, but he and Salifou went to visit older musicians in the Instrumental Ensemble of Guinea and recorded the music and texts that they would arrange as Regard Sur Le Passe, which won the first prize in Sekou Toure's contest.

The song is an elaborate, 34-minute production in two parts. You can find it on one of five reissue CDs of Bembeya Jazz's Syliphone classics that Melodie released over the past few years. The song bangs in with brass and balafon, but the first part is mostly oratory in French, with Sekou's big, echoey guitar lurking in the background. The second part, essentially an up-tempo version of the griot song Keme Burema, originally sung for Samory's brother and military mastermind, grooves hard and lets Sekou cut loose as on the best Bembeya recordings of this era.

That was 1968, as Sekou recalls it, the year that saxophonist Dore Clement [b.1938 in Cotonou, Benin] joined the band. Dore came up playing highlife with musicians from Nigeria and Ghana, and traveled all over West Africa - a 'pigeon voyager' he likes to say - before settling down with Bembeya. "We came together as brothers," he told me, and he stayed until 1978, his longest stretch in any single band. Twenty-two years later, Dore got the call to come back, and now, he completes the Bembeya Jazz brass alongside Achken on trumpet and Mazo, also on tenor sax.

In the 1970s, Sekou told me, Conakry's four national bands were constantly looking for new ways to outdo each other creatively. "It wasn't mean," he said. "We would talk and greet one another. But when you have competition, you don't want to lose. It's a struggle. In 1973, we said, let's change the style. Let's put on a real show - hot! - with girls, everyone moving. That was something else also." Sekou said that the key to each national band's sound lay in the sensibility of its arranger. "It's true that a single person cannot do everything, but there is one person who guides. Without him, nothing can work."

This feature first appeared in fRoots 233, November 2002


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