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Oh Bembeya!

It took time for Bembeya to recover from this loss, for by then, Demba Camara was one of the most beloved singers in West Africa. Bembeya Jazz eventually regrouped with a three-man vocal section they called Trio Bazooka. The line-up was Salifou, Moussa Toure, and Nagna Mory Kouyaté, the first griot singer ever to work in Bembeya Jazz. Later, they would be joined by the young Sekouba 'Bambino' Diabate (see fR230/231).

The big event of the late '70s for Bembeya was attending FESTAC in Lagos in 1977. Salifou cherishes his memory of the band's night out with Fela Kuti and Bob Marley. "Fela loved Sekou Toure," Salifou told me. "In his bar, he had posted the photographs of African heads of state - everyone, even Idi Amin! So when he came to sing at midnight, Fela took the microphone and said, 'There are musicians here from Guinea who are happy to come to our bar. Bembeya Jazz.' And he cited the names of the musicians. Then Bob Marley came and said, 'I want to meet the musicians of Bembeya Jazz.' We went. He spoke in English and I understood a little. We spoke in French and he understood a little. He presented his wife, Rita. In the end, he left me with his wife and he went, I don't know where." Salifou made a smoking gesture and raised his eyes knowingly. "We stayed in Fela's bar until seven in the morning." As for Bembeya's performance, a Nigerian journalist writing about it afterwards coined Sekou's enduring sobriquet: Diamond Fingers.

Back in Conakry, economic woes were taking a heavy toll on life. "By 1980," said Sekou, "we weren't playing as regularly any more. There were lots of other groups by then too. In every time, with music, it's the youth who earn all the money." A few years later, Sekou Toure called the leaders of the four national bands together and proposed a new arrangement. "He asked us whether we wanted to have autonomy from the government. He said he would give each national band a bar."

Salifou recalled that not all the bands liked this idea, but that the members of Bembeya were tired of being functionaries and wanted to be independent. "The president said, 'You must try. If it's not good, the government is for you. We are your brothers. You can come back.'"

"He gave us Club Bembeya," said Sekou, "and he even got us instruments. Bala had Jardins du Guinea. Keletigui had La Paillote. Horoya Band was at La Minier. A few months later, he was dead."

1987, London
Bembeya Jazz at that last UK gig in 1987. They returned in November 2002 for the London Jazz Festival.


This feature first appeared in fRoots 233, November 2002

 

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