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Oh Bembeya!

Photo: Jak Kilby
More memories of Bembeya's 1987 London visit.
It was 1984, and Guinea stood at the brink of a new era. "If you were an artist," said Sekou, "a musician, a patriot, any conscious person, the death of President Sekou Toure was a shock. This was a man you respected, and who had given you all of your dignity. After that, times changed." As for Sekou Toure's excesses - his growing paranoia that led him to order the deaths of many, including a giant of modern Guinean cultural life and founder of the Ballet Guinean, Fodeba Keita - Sekou had this to say: "What I would like here is for us to talk only about the musical side. As far as the political dimension, I know nothing. I have nothing to say about that."
Each of the Bembeya musicians I spoke with about Sekou Toure had more or less the same response. Percussionist Papa Kouyaté, after voicing his fierce respect for and loyalty to Toure, went a little further, saying, "All African heads of state killed people, and the heads of state of the world have killed, whether they are black or white. Everyone kills for power."

The last time Bembeya Jazz recorded in the 20th century was in 1988, when they made the mediocre Wa Kelé for Sonodisc featuring keyboards and electronic drums. Looking back, Sekou told me, "You can change your style of dress or your look with the times, but the moment you put on a mask, you're lost. That's what happened with the 1988 record."

Sekou toured the USA in 1989 with a small group featuring Sekouba Bambino Diabaté on vocals, and the UK in the early '90s in an acoustic group with his sister Sona Diabate, but Bembeya Jazz came together only for the occasional high-profile gig in Conakry in those years. By the late '90s, Sekou was living in Paris with his wife, singer Djanka Diabaté, and had produced one fantastic, mostly acoustic album, Diamond Fingers (Dakar Sound), and one less persuasive electric album with Djanka. Back in Conakry, guitarist Mamady Kouyaté took the solo spot when Bembeya Jazz played. Mamady had led the regional band in Kouroussa, a big centre for Manding culture in central-eastern Guinea. He had his own Conakry-based group, Djelidens, made up mostly of young musicians.

"Bembeya Jazz was not broken up," Sekou insisted. "Never, never! In life, there are ups and downs, good moments and bad moments. So you wait. We were waiting." In 1999, Guinea organised a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Samory Toure's death. There was to be a grand concert in Kérouane, in the Guinean part of Wassoulou, and Bembeya Jazz had to be there. "I got the call to come back to Conakry," said Sekou. "I left everything and I went. It was a new beginning."

At the time, Salifou was back to being a carpenter, and others were making money in whatever ways they could. Mangala told me that Club Bembeya still provided scant income for the band. "We've rented it to Moroccans. They pay us at the end of the month, and that covers food for our families. When they make contracts, there is a small percentage for us." He was more than ready to resume work with Bembeya Jazz. "It's been forty years and I still have my drum sticks, but I have nothing else. With all our work, we've earned nothing in these years. A footballer gets old and can't play, but me, I'm still ready. I can play next to the kids and keep up. Next to the kids!"

This feature first appeared in fRoots 233, November 2002


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