In the aftermath of the Guinean Independence in 1958 and the encouragement of cultural pride, numerous bands sprang up throughout the African country. The most popular was Bembeya Jazz National, formed by vocalist Aboubacar Dembar Camara in 1961. Specializing in modern arrangements of Manding classic tunes, Bembeya Jazz National won the first two national Biennale festivals in 1962 and 1964 and was crowned National Orchestra in 1966. Initially a seven-piece group, featuring a Latin-flavored horn…
By the mid-1970, the Syli Authentic orchestra was the greatness of Guinean popular music. Disbanded too soon, this band was of the new generation better hopes, being deeply rooted in the rich mandingo traditional while displaying an insolent modernity………………
Happenstance. Last week while in New York I caught a short ride with a West African cab driver in Brooklyn. Upon entry there was music. “What is this?” I asked. “It’s African – Bembeya Jazz National. 1970’s. West coast.” And while the name was familiar, via a compilation, the sounds were not.
Originally from the Ivory Coast, the driver had been in the states two years, and in his thick patois began to recommend artist after artist, album after album. Too much and too fast to jot down, we rode, he spoke, and I listened. Another five minutes and we had reached my destination – I got out and thanked him for both the ride and the hip.
Now back in Los Angeles, the following has been on my mind. And on repeat……
The recent release of the Syliphone Discotheque series on compact disc covers an important era in the history of West African music. The period covered is significant, for in the mid 70s Guinean music was one of the most popular styles in west Africa, and many of Guinea’s bands were in their prime. The series covers the years from 1970 to 1976 and features all of the original Discotheque LP releases. All of the major groups from Guinea are represented, including Bembeya Jazz National, Keletigui et ses Tambourinis, Balla et ses Balladins, Horoya Band National, and Camayenne Sofa. In addition to these luminaries are many tracks by less well-known groups, such as the excellent Syli Authentic, the groovy Myryam’s Quintette, and the Super Boiro Band, the latter performing several exceptional numbers.
The concept behind the Discotheque series was to re-issue the popular songs of the year in a “greatest hits” style compilation. These songs usually came from previously released Syliphone LPs, though sometimes they were reissues of 45 rpm singles. The Syliphone label was a government controlled body and was Guinea’s only recording label until its demise in the late 1970s. The word “Syli” actually means elephant in Suso, and the elephant was the emblem of the Guinea’s sole political party, the PDG. It is not surprising, therefore, to find many examples of songs on the Syliphone releases (of which there were 82) that praised the government of Sékou Touré and the policies of the PDG.
cd cover The first Discotheque release was in 1970 and features Bembeya Jazz National in great form with “Waraba.” Another excellent track on the CD is an acoustic guitar duet by Les Virtouses Diabaté, with perhaps the stand-out number by the popular Demba Camara, the original lead singer of Bembeya Jazz, who died in a car crash only a few years later. Discotheque 71 features an absolute classic with “Moi ça ma fout” by Balla et ses Balladins - one of the great guitar tracks from Guinea, which they follow up with “Sakhodougou,” an impressive ballad exhibiting all the hallmarks and finery of classic 1970s Mandé rock. Myryam’s Quintette, the backing band for Myriam Makeba (who lived in Guinea for a number of years and released two Syliphone LPs) provide a rather bizarre instrumental which featured, possibly for the first time, a kora with a western-style ensemble. Discotheque 72 contains a very funky “Samba” by Pivi et ses Balladins (a track which was later covered by Les Amazones de Guinée) and Les Frères Diabaté contribute three wonderful instrumental acoustic tracks. Discotheque 73 opens with Bembeya Jazz National performing their 15 minute opus “Super Tentemba,” and also includes their hit “Mami wata.” Myriam Makeb, with her ensemble, performs in a most griot-like manner in “Malouyame,” and allows us a rare chance to hear one of her Guinean recordings.
Discotheque 74 is amongst the best of the series. The first track is Camayenne Sofa’s “Kononin” which features some incredible wah-wah peddle lead guitar and funky organ breaks. It is perhaps only eclipsed by “So i si sa” by the Super Boiro Band - the brass section delivering the most powerful of riffs on one of the best songs of the decade from Guinea. Other great songs include Balla et ses Balladin’s “Ancien combattant” and Kaloum Star’s “Manibaly.” Discotheque 75 also begins with a classic, the Conakry based Syli Authentic performing “Andree.” This group were the youngest of the big bands and were viewed as one of the more experimental of their time. The Super Boiro Band also provide the gentle “Kha mu lan ma” and Horoya Band National perform two tracks. Discotheque 76 is unusual in that an extra track has been added. Included is “Sina mousso” by Bembeya Jazz National, a song that was originally released on “La défi” and which gives the band five out of the six tracks on this CD. The instrumental number “Petit Sekou” allows Sekou Diabaté to exhibit his prodigious talent and another good performance by the band is found in “Kana sarakabö.” This release also contains the only recorded performance by the group Super Lion, who were the all-male orchestra of the National Gendarmarie of Guinea. Only 12 more Syliphone LPs were released after Discotheque 76.
Given the opportunity to re-release such classic and rare material one would expect a first-class job done on the reissues, however this is sadly not the case. Though the sound quality is very good, there are a number of errors and omissions present and the whole series suffers generally from a poor presentation. The wonderful original cover art has been shrunk to insignificant proportions and the liner notes on the back of the original recordings is now completely absent. This is a real tragedy, for the liner notes were highly informative and often supplied translations to the songs. Surely these could have been included with up-to-date information in a booklet with each compact disc. At times the notes are simply wrong. For example the names of songs are spelled incorrectly as are the names of bands (“Bala” instead of “Balla”). Some tracks have no band name at all as a credit (as with “Sina mousso” by Bembeya Jazz National on Discotheque 76) and the track listings for Discotheque 75 are totally confusing. Track 3 is actually by the Horoya Band National, and the listings make sense once this is taken into account. If the Syliphone catalogue is to be gradually re-released then hopefully better products will be forthcoming. Still, the series makes for some excellent listening and comes most highly recommended. - Graeme Counsel…………….
Bembeya Jazz was one of the first regional bands to become national exponents of the modernization of traditional indigenous African music. In time, they became legendary innovators of modern African music known all over the world. This double-CD set contains their best singles from the 1960s and ‘70s plus some rare music previously unavailable in any format. The Cuban influence is evident on some of the tracks, but Bembeya Jazz blended this with indigenous styles to create a unique take all their own. All of this music was recorded on Guinea’s legendary Syliphone label. The sound quality is quite good given that some of the tracks are vinyl transfers since the 45 rpm master tapes have been lost. In 2001, Metoura Traore, a pioneering musician of the same period of these recordings, said, “Guinean music was the avant-garde of African music…it was like the lighthouse to music in Africa. And they said it couldn’t be done – to modernize African music.” This set is a jewel in the crown in African music. ~ Mark Romano
In 1958 Guinea gained its independence from 60 years of French colonial rule. One of the first things that President Toure did was to help restore his country’s historical pride and heritage through an authentic renaissance of the arts, particularly music……………..
The music made in Guinea during the first two decades after independence from France in 1958 represents some of the most sublime and influential that any West African nation has ever produced. Backed by Sékou Touré’s socialist government, groups from every region of the country were encouraged to modernise their ancient musical traditions and were given the financial assistance to do so. And of all the musical riches that this policy unearthed, those of Bembeya Jazz National were the finest.
If you weren’t quite convinced by the band’s 2002 comeback album Bembeya, and the recent Guitar Fö from their mighty guitarist Sékou Diabaté, this 2-CD compilation really shows what all the fuss was about. It’s a thorough selection of their best work for the national Syliphone label, which began releasing local music in the mid 1960s. For those already familiar with compilations like Mémoire de Aboubacar Demba Camara -at least half of which is reproduced here -the first disc, which includes many early singles previously unavailable on CD, will be a revelation.
Highlights? Pretty much the whole damn thing, though it depends on your mood, such is the variety of styles they experimented with. All the ingredients that made their music so wonderful are there on their first single “République Guinée”; the trademark off-key brass section, grooving percussion, Sékou Diabaté’s exquisite guitar and the distinctively savoury vocals of Demba Camara. Apart from updating the griot songs of their largely Maninka heritage, the band revelled in outside influences.
Titles like “Sabor de Guajira”, “Montuno de la Sierra” and the rumba-flavoured gem “Dagna” illustrate the passion for Cuban music which they shared with many West African musicians of their generation. Likewise, “Mami Wata” is an affectionate nod to Ghanaian highlife, and “Sou” takes a short trip to Cape Verde. The compilation brings us as far as 1976, three years after the death of Demba Camara, by which time their sound was beginning to take on a soukous flavour.
Those who are fussy about sound quality should perhaps be warned that some of the recordings are copied from vinyl rather than the original master tapes, but also that this music is about ambience, not accuracy. The only major omission is anything from the epic Regard sur le Passé, probably because as Graeme Counsel’s excellent sleevenotes explain it consists of a single song spread over two sides of vinyl, and is best heard in its entirety. Otherwise, its hard to fault this superlative and long overdue re-issue, which commemorates a truly golden era in African music. If the brooding, majestic grace of Ballake doesn’t give you goosebumps, you should probably see a doctor soon…………….
Cuba’s cultural relationship to Congo was borne of the slave trade, but its bond to Guinea was a touch more metaphysical– the socialist dream. Dreamers– especially those dreaming after a contradictory and untenable political system– know the necessity of sticking together: Part of Guinea President Ahmed Sékou Touré’s guard was made up of Havana’s troops, and in 1965, Bembeya Jazz, Guinea’s national orchestra, toured Cuba, where vocalist Aboubacar Camara supposedly brought tears to the eyes of the respected Orquesta Sensación singer Abelardo Barroso.
The Syliphone Years reissues a 2004 compilation of the same name, gathering the band’s singles from the 1960s and 70s recorded for the state-run Syliphone label. Bembeya’s music has plenty in common with the Congolese rumba popularized by artists like Tabu Ley Rochereau and Franco in the 50s and 60s– Sékou Touré wanted the national orchestras in Guinea to infuse a modern, popular African sound with Guinean folk music– but the rhythms feel more skittery, the tone more nocturnal and meandering. There’s plenty of hustle, but you get the sense that the wallflower beauty of Bembeya’s quieter moments would leave more dance-imperative Congolese with raised eyebrows.
Bembeya is at least partially distinguished by the electric guitar work of Sekou Diabaté, who did as much to make one rethink the possibilities of the instrument as D. Boon from the Minutemen or, well, the aforementioned Franco. All of these guitarists made a style out of musical diplomacy by tying together rhythmic elements within their band. When Diabaté peeks out, it’s in predictable ways– like Boon, who always played the same guitar solo– but he doesn’t often do so; it’s as a liaison, not a soloist, that he’s most effective. He’s a rhythm guitarist, but– and I said the same about the his playing on the African Virtuoses compilation– the rhythm is all ornament and arpeggio rather than strum and jangle, here featuring trails of rudimentary echo and reverb.
The impression is like a sky littered with stars. Bembeya never let a drone loose, but the constant interweaving and syncopation of staccato horn, guitar, percussion, and the dub-like bass voids of Mamadou Camara (which warrant special mention), make a continuum of sound. And while Bembeya’s music was calculated to rally the greatest number at the lowest common denominator for the socialist cup, it’s still great music to dance to (especially when one’s other options, save Cuba, are the near-absolute groovelessness of North Korean pop or barrel-chested Soviet choirs).
Identifying a sound or band with their place of origin– calling them the “sound of” their home– often serves as a fanfare for a lot of tenuous metaphors. And tenuous metaphors have their place, absolutely. But it’s a stranger thing still to consider that Bembeya was the sound of Guinea because the government made them so. It’s not often people pipe up on behalf of for Naval brass bands, though maybe they would if Naval brass bands weren’t so darn square…………
In the late 1960s through the 1970s, Guinea’s Bembeya Jazz was one of the most important – and majestic-sounding – bands working in, and inventing as they went along, the then-new West African electrified griot style. Begun as a state-sponsored arts project for the propagation of local music under the aegis of Socialist President Sekou Toure, Bembeya nonetheless incorporated a blend of diverse flavors – including the jazz, Cuban music, and Congo-style electric guitar rumba so beloved by West Africans at the time – into a music based solidly on the griot and folk traditions of the ancient Malian Empire.
The two CD set The Syliphone Years represents Bembeya during the period of their most dynamic, creative work and greatest popularity, and gives ample evidence of what made this band so special. On classic singles and album tracks from the early ’70s, a perfect and precise interlock of percussion, electric bass, sharp horn section accents, and balafon-like supporting guitar patterns limn a riverbed so that the soloists – among them, guitarist Sekou “Diamond Fingers” Diabate, trumpeter Sekou “Le Growl” Camara, and the sublime vocalist Demba Camara – can flow along with the rippling current.
Guitarist Sekou Diabate is one of the great virtuosos of African – or any other, for that matter – electric guitar. His crystalline reverb-and-echo laden lines take flight with surprising twists and turns, summoning the essences of instruments like West African kora, balafon, or Cuban tres, tracing quicksilver Sahelian calligraphic patterns that leave the listener breathless. Singer Demba Camara’s delivery of traditionally-inspired moral parables in a dance band setting combines elegance and a tinge of vulnerability, his voice rich with the same sort of yearning, spiritual expression to be heard in Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece What’s Going On.
Demba Camara’s charismatic performances and graceful, empowered modern take on traditional culture were in some ways the heart of Bembeya Jazz, and his tragic death in a car accident in 1973 nearly destroyed the band. But after a period of mourning, Bembeya went on. The later tracks here, from 1976, reveal the band’s development of a looser-limbed approach, kick-drum driven, with increasing influences from disco and funk, Ghanaian highlife and Congolese soukous; a slower, more spacious groove for the soloists – Diamond Fingers in particular – to ripple along with, to soar above……..
A1 –Super Lion Kiti 9:40
A2 –Bembeya Jazz National Telephone 6:15
B1 –Bembeya Jazz National Petit Sekou 5:20
B2 –Bembeya Jazz National Ah Kani 5:30
B3 –Bembeya Jazz National Kana Sarakabö 5:47