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Oh Bembeya!

Sekouba 'Bambino' Diabate.
Photo: Jak Kilby
Sekouba 'Bambino' Diabaté singing with Bembeya Jazz at the Africa Centre in 1987. Lucy Duran remembers "That was the night he came off stage and went down on his knees in front of Toumani Diabate and me. Neither had any money so I gave him a very beautiful silver necklance I was wearing, and next day Toumani went to his hotel and gave him £60! Bambino even remembered it, down to the amount of money, when I interviewed him ten years later.".
One key to Bembeya's popularity was Mangala's forceful and creative drumming, which marks all the band's recordings. From the start, he worked the traditional rhythms he grew up with into more standard trap drum playing, for example in his beautifully elliptical timbale solo on N'Kanunuwe, from the superb album Défi (The Challenge). Mangala told me that Défi was arranged for the band by Justin Morel, then Director General of Guinean national radio. Morel, by the way, remains a fanatic fan and a scholar of Bembeya Jazz. He was so excited about the new recording that he interviewed Achken for over an hour on live radio, over the phone from Angoulême.
1973 brought devastating tragedy to Bembeya Jazz. The band had been invited to play in Dakar, and were promised by Sekou Toure that a complete set of instruments and amplifiers would await them upon their return. "The next day, Demba came in his motorcycle," said Salifou. "We were rehearsing at the Jardin de Guinea, and before the rehearsal, Demba told us that he had visited a [clairvoyant] woman in Coya. She had read the shells and told him that Bembeya had to make a sacrifice, that there would be an accident. When he said that, each member of the band gave 100 francs to buy kola nuts, and we prayed with them and gave them away. After we parted, Demba took his motorcycle. In turning in front of the club, he crashed into another car [but was not hurt]. We said, 'Ah! Demba was right. If we had not made this sacrifice, it would have been serious.' It was two days later that we traveled to Dakar."

"In the airplane, he and I were together. He had a novel with him, The Count Of Monte Cristo, and he was reading it on the plane. We had a thing when we traveled. We always took a little money of the country we were traveling to, and after the plane landed, we would go to the bar and have a coffee. So I said, 'Demba, I've bought the coffee,' and he said, 'Ah, really, I don't feel like coffee now.' He said he was tired and wanted to rest."

"We got our baggage and left the terminal. There was a car from the embassy there to meet us. Sekou told me to come with him in that car and go to the hall and make sure everything was okay. I got in the car, and Demba followed with his book. I said, 'Demba, stay here.' He said, 'No, no. You will drop me at the hotel, and then you can go on.' We took the cliff road. The driver was very happy. He told us he would leave us at the hotel, go and find his girlfriend, then come and find us at the hotel and go dancing. He was happy, pumping, pumping. I saw the speedometer rising: 80, 90, right up to 110. I felt something rising in my mouth, but I could not say it. I could not tell him to slow down. As the car reached full speed, we saw another car approaching. The chauffeur veered and then he couldn't get control again. We hit the sidewalk and rolled. I saw the streetlights: above, below, above, below. The door flew open and Demba was thrown out. His head hit the sidewalk. He was curled up when we found him."

"The others were behind us in another car, following," recalled Sekou. "When they arrived, they saw Demba. He never spoke again."


This feature first appeared in fRoots 233, November 2002

 

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