At the time of Guinea's independence in 1958, the country's president, Sekou Toure, had a bold plan for the emerging nation. He established all sorts of performance groups that would promote new cultural movements. But the best band from this era, Bembeya Jazz, has proven to be more enduring than any political agenda.
"Our contribution is an act of translation," says Mohamed Achken Kaba, Bembeya's director and trumpeter. "It was important to transfer, or translate, traditional music into the modern world."
As musicologist Eric Charry writes in his book, "Mande Music," Bembeya was one of the foremost bands to use primarily Western instruments to explore its region's folk themes (such groups were given the French term, "orchestre"). Bembeya's horns emphasize the sharp rhythms and its songs are often built around dazzling electric guitarist Sekou Diabate. The group also helped break down a West African caste system.
"In the past, music always belonged to the griots because they were the local historians," Kaba says. "They knew the folklore and the names of the ancestors. But when Sekou Toure formed these orchestras, one of the things he wanted to explore was that other people, other than griots, could become musicians."
Bembeya was established in the Guinean city of Beyela in the early 1960s as one of the country's official regional performing groups. The band took its name from a local river. Kaba says that the word "Jazz" was added, "to relate more to youth and the creativity of making this modern African music and not in the strict sense of being limited to jazz rhythms or jazz style." But he is still a fan of Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong.
Toure set up national competitions among the different regional bands. Kaba says in 1963 Bembeya Jazz took first prize in the Guinean capital of Conakry and repeated that success for the next five years. Charry regards Bembeya's 1970 album-length tribute to nineteenth-century Guinean hero Almami Samory Toure, "Regard sur le passé," as, "a classic." In the early 1970s at the Pan-African Youth Congress in Nigeria, Diabate was given his longstanding nickname, "Diamond Fingers."
The band almost disbanded in 1973 when lead singer Aboubacar Demba Camara was killed in a car accident. Eleven years later Bembeya lost its governmental support with Toure's death. Although Kaba said Bembeya continued to perform with fewer members, the group had stopped recording because of financial difficulties.
Recently, Bembeya's fortunes have significantly improved. French aficionados brought the band together to perform at the Musiques Metisses festival last year. After a 15-year hiatus from the studio, the group recorded their new disc, "Bembeya." The CD is comprised of enthusiastically revamped versions of their repertoire from the 1960s through the 1980s.
Kaba adds that he would not mind seeing musical contests come back to Guinea, although only if they followed rigorous standards. Bembeya would be up for the challenge.
"Now you can have one person up there [onstage] with a keyboard, but the only way to have real competitions is if you have orchestras regrouping and continuing along."
Originally published Aug. 20, 2003.
Aaron Cohen is a Chicago freelance writer.
Bembeya Jazz a Guinean treasure
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