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Oh Bembeya!

Sekou Diabate.
Photo: Jak Kilby
Sekou 'Diamond Fingers' Diabaté at London's Africa Centre, 1987.
There are a couple of relative kids in the new lineup. Alseny Doumbouya, who now sings alongside Salifou and Youssouf Bah, came from Mamady Kouyaté's band Djelidens. Alseny was born in 1972, during Bembeya Jazz's prime, as was the current bassist Mamady Conde. Guitarist Mamady Kouyaté is now a full member of Bembeya, completing the band's powerhouse, three-guitar section along with Sekou, and another younger player, Kova Bavogui.
"This is the true face of Manding music," said Sekou, not one to be bashful about his achievements. "When you talk about the real originality and modernity of the music, it's us. That's why we're important. In whatever country we visit, we can do what we do, and Guinea is there. That's what you call the culture of a country."

Some band members complain that Guinea's government now does little to help musicians, and that it even puts obstacles in their path in the form of high import tariffs on equipment. Sekou doesn't see it that way. "You might say that I'm a fanatic," he told me, "but for me, the destiny of a man is in the hands of God. That's why I don't condemn people for what they do or don't do. Christian Mousset, for example. He stayed here, but from all these miles away, he thought about Bembeya. That's God. If someone doesn't do something for us, there will be another."

Bembeya Jazz's phoenix-like rise is part of a larger and long-overdue trend in African music today. The old guys are coming back! In addition to Mousset's new projects with Wendo Kolosoy and the Super Rail Band, there is the sensational return of Senegal's Orchestra Baobab, spearheaded by Nick Gold and Jenny Cathcart. Mousset hopes to put Bembeya Jazz, the Rail Band and Baobab on a single stage at next year's Musiques Métisses festival in a kind of patrimonial music smackdown.

Knowing my long time association with the Rail Band, Sekou couldn't resist a little pre-match banter. "It's not the same thing at all," he said of the Rail Band. "They started nine years after us, in 1970, and they've never caught up. If you put these two bands on one stage - one hour, one hour - they would be crawling away." Bembeya's new recording certainly supports Sekou's bluster. It is rich, and dense, and swings like an elephant, to borrow a phrase from a Senegalese musician friend. Still, having watched the Rail Band and Baobab together bring New York City to its feet, and then its knees, at Central Park Summerstage this past summer, I'm not choosing a favourite just yet. I do know this: we are blessed to live in a time when such an event is even possible.

This feature first appeared in fRoots 233, November 2002


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