Apr 9, 2010

Bembeya Jazz National - The Syliphone Years


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.



[CD 1]
01. Republique Guinee
02. Sabor de guajira
03. Armee Guineenne
04. Dembaty galant
05. Air Guinee
06. Guinee hety horemoun
07. Montuno de la sierra
08. Waraba
09. Dagna
10. Doni doni
11. Camara mousso
12. Super tentemba
13. Mami wata
14. Alalake

[CD 2]
01. Beyla
02. Fatoumata
03. Moussogbe
04. Sou
05. N'gamokorô
06. Ballake
07. Mussofing
08. Dya dya
09. Sina mousso
10. N'temena
11. Telephone
12. Petit Sekou

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