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Bembeya Jazz: Rebirth in 2002 (long interview with pix)

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BY Banning Eyre

Among the most exciting Afropop concert events for the summer-2003 season is the first ever U.S. tour by Guinea's Bembeya Jazz. The band's first recording in 14 years-- Bembeya (World Village)--marks the start of an exciting new chapter in the life of one of Africa's greatest dance bands. Bembeya Jazz's signature four-guitar section still shines, crowned by the sterling lead guitar work of Sekou Bembeya Diabaté--a.k.a. "Diamond Fingers." The band's three singers still deliver timeless vocal harmonies topped by the sweet, high tenor of Salifou Kaba. Two of the three players in Bembeya's punchy brass section--Dory Clement on tenor sax, and chef d'orchestre Mohamed Kaba on trumpet--joined Bembeya back in the 1960s, and their lines still blare with the pride and enthusiasm of Guinea's first decade of independence. Nailing down the band's sensational, hard-swinging rhythm section is drummer Conde Mory Mangala, who has served as Bembeya Jazz's beating heart from the very beginning. The authenticity, spirit, groove and singular creativity of this powerhouse group remains fully intact.

Last year, as the band was getting ready to make this landmark recording, Afropop's Banning Eyre spent five days with the band in Angouleme, France. The musicians spent their days rehearsing at a rock club called Le Nef, and their evenings resting at Catholic monk's dormitory in town--an unlikely spot to find twelve, mostly Muslim African musicians, but there it was. Banning took the occasion to interview most of the members of the band, and here are extended excerpts from his interviews with bandleader and legendary guitarist, Sekou "Bembeya" Diabate, and with longtime Bembeya Jazz vocalist Salifou Kaba. They describe their beginnings, the original rise of the band, the death of their star vocalist Demba Camara in 1971, and the band's current resurrection.

Sekou "Bembeya" Diabate

Banning Eyre: So, Sekou, how did you get your start in music?

Sekou Bembeya Diabate:How I came into music--it's a family affair, from generation to generation, a grand Manding griot family. Traditional. From father to son. My father played the balafon and the acoustic guitar in the traditional griot style, [with the fingers] without chords, and then you put the capo on to change the key. That's it. My father [El Hadj Djeli Fode Diabaté (d. 1988)] was among the first who introduced the guitar to Guinea.

I was born 1n 1944 in Tiero, in the region of Faranah, in haut-Guinea, far from Beyla. When I was very young, I was much more interested in the guitar than in the balafon. My father wanted to send me to Koranic school when I was ten, and I said to him, "But I need a guitar." So he ordered a special guitar, a metal guitar.

B.E.: A National steel guitar?

That's right. In 1954. It was very expensive at the time. That was my first personal guitar.

B.E.: Wow. You were lucky.

S.B.D.: To be sure. To be sure. Nobody in my generation had a guitar like that. It was for the big people. But my father found it, especially for me. So with that I began my autonomy.

B.E.: Eric Charry writes in his book that Facelli Kante made the first guitar recordings in 1954. But you had grown up with the guitar, all your life. There was never a time when you didn't hear the guitar.

S.B.D.: That's it. That's it. Exactly. It was in the cradle with me.

B.E.: So you got the guitar in 1955, and six years later, Bembeya Jazz started. What happened during those six years?

S.B.D.: In 1959, I was invited to Conakry by the son of a friend of my father's… This was my first time in Conakry and I had a great time there. At the time, El Hadj Sidikiba Diabaté was already in Conakry, and a big, big artist. He was an uncle of mine, so I went to his family. Now his son, my cousin, "Papa" Diabaté, was the number one guitar player of the time. "Papa" Diabaté. He was the one who showed me my first lessons in modern guitar playing.

B.E.: Before that, it was all traditional.

S.B.D.: Voila. From '54 to '59. "Diarabi," "Makalé" things like that, traditional things… So that year, or 1961, someone from Kisidougou--that's a town in the forest--came for me. They sent a delegation asking me to come there as a guitarist as soon as possible. But I spent just a short time in Kisidougou, and then I went to Kankan. The reason I left Kisidougou is a bit of a story. You know that I had been to Koranic school. Well, I was a bit of a fanatic, and I had gone into a boutique where they sold alcohol. One day, I was angry and I broke a lot of bottles.

B.E.: Why did you do that?

S.B.D.: Because I didn't like that… But when I broke all those bottles, the director came to me and he said, "Very well, this is what I want. There is a man here in Kisidougou called Papa Yaré, and he wants you to go to Kankan." I went to Kankan all alone, and it went very well. I had a lot of success for a month or two. But after some time, the Commandant of Beyla, Emile Kondé, heard about me, because I had already been making a lot of noise in Kankan. "There's a young guy here, but he's very good. He's so young. It's not possible!" Like that. So he said, "Find me this young man. I want to meet him." So they found me and took me to the place where he was staying in Kankan, and in the course of our discussion, he found that his very close friend, very close, was the younger brother of my father.
He had asked me if I knew Sirakata Diabaté, and I had said, "But Sirakata Diabaté is my father's younger brother!" He said, "Oh good." So we kept talking. Then he told me he was leaving for Beyla and had I ever been there? I said, "No, I've never gone to Beyla." Kankan already seemed far away to me; Beyla was really far. It was another 250 km into the forest. Very far! …When [Sirakata] told me we were going to Beyla, I said, "No, I'm not going."

He said to me, "Sekou, I am going to tell you. I am the young brother of your father. If you do not come with me, I am going to report this to Kankan. You know our laws. I am capable of obliging you to come.

I said, "No, it's not worth it." I prepared my things and we went to Beyla.

B.E.: You were forced to go?

S.B.D.: Obligatoirement. [LAUGHS] So when I arrived in Beyla, it was now the start of 1961. This coincided with the band's baptism, so I became a founding member of the band and the first guitarist. There weren't many guitarists at the time. And we started to work together.

B.E.: So this was the beginning of Sekou Toure's great project of state support for music. What sort of gigs did you play at that point?

We didn't play concerts at the time. It was evening dances, in a big hall. We left often to play in other towns, even in Cote D'Ivoire. We'd start around 9:00 and play right through to the morning.

B.E.: And you played in competitions? Biennalles?

S.B.D.: It was a little later that the Biennales started. Every two years, they would make a selection in each locality to find groups to perform in the capital to be among the best.

B.E.: And you won, right?

S.B.D.: One time, two times. That was now in 1965. After we had had lots and lots of success in the capital, Conakry, the Bureau Politic National proposed that we come to the capital. That was when we were nationalized and became a national band like Keletigui [et ses Tambourinis], like Bala [et ses Baladins]. We were now the third group. We moved in 1966 to Conakry… That changed everything. We were promoted from a small town to a big capital city. That's a big promotion. We had to work hard to merit this honor. We couldn't slack off.

B.E.: What was Conakry like back then?

S.B.D.: In Conakry at that time we played every night except Sunday night. Every night. It was extraordinary. Every night until 2:00 in the morning.

B.E.: La Paillote [an open air club under a big tent] was there?

S.B.D.: Paillote. Jardin du Guinea. And later the Palmier. With all that, the town was really animated.

B.E.: So how did things change over the years?

S.B.D.: You know that in life, times change. When times change, lots of things change. When you are used to certain things and times change, peoples' behavior changes, social life changes. It's a new time. End of story.

B.E.: What was the effect on music in Guinea when Sekou Toure died in 1984? Was that a big deal?

S.B.D.: Very much so. If you were an artist, a musician, a patriot, any conscious person, the death of President Sekou Toure was a shock. Then, as I told you, times changed. Before the death of President Sekou Toure, he asked us whether we wanted to have autonomy from the government. We said that we did, that we would like to try being autonomous. So he gave each national band a bar. We had our bar, which was called Club Bembeya. This was almost in 1984; a few months later he was dead. He gave us Club Bembeya, and he even got us instruments. Bala et Ses Baladins had Jardins du Guinea. Keletigui et Ses Tambourinis had La Paillote. Horoya Band was at La Minier. He said, "If this works for you, no problem. But if it doesn't work, we will see what else we can do for you." But then he was dead.

B.E.: Let's talk for a moment about Sekou Toure in general. He is a very interesting figure, but also a paradoxical one. We know, as you say, that he was a great man of culture who did things that all of Africa must thank him for. He changed the history of music. But he was also very tough. If we look at what happened to Keita Fodeba, who was his friend but who was later killed by him. How do you put all that together?

S.B.D.: No. What I would like here is for us to talk only about the musical side. As far as the political side, I know nothing about that. We should just talk about the area of music. There, I can tell you whatever you like, but as for the political side, I have nothing to say about that.

B.E.: Okay. It's interesting to me that so many African musicians have strong relationships with political leaders, but very few actually sing about politics in their songs. Even in interviews, others have declined to discuss politics with me. Would you say that by its nature, Guinean music is not political music?

Because, you know, you are with a man you respect and who has given you all of your dignity. We sing social songs. We sing songs that advise people to do good things, for themselves and for the country. We sing love songs as well. We sing songs about work. Yes. So that is our objective so that the country concerns itself with its problems. That's it.

B.E.: Tell me about some of the most important songs in the history of Bembeya Jazz, in terms of the lyrics. What are the most important songs?

S.B.D.: The first big success among the songs of Bembeya Jazz was "Demba Tigala," which I sang myself. It was my composition in 1964. That song was a total success in the country. Women even designed a fabric for that song.

B.E.: What did the song say?

S.B.D.: It talks about a woman with her baby. Be careful. Pay attention. Don't joke around too much. Like that.

B.E.: A song of daily life.

S.B.D.: Voila. That song really interetested the women. It was the first big, big success of Bembeya Jazz. Then there was "Armee Guinea," which the Voice of America played often. There was "Mami Wata." That was a popular song. The name is Anglophone, but it had been passed from generation to generation in the Koninke language, where we were. It's about the demoness of water. Mami Wata, like the English word.

B.E.: The demoness of water. Like Yemanya among the Yoruba.

S.B.D.: Voila. It's the same idea. So there was that. There was "Whisky Soda," "Super Tentemba." Then the biggest one of all was "Regard Sur le Passe." That was supreme.

B.E.: That was for Samory Toure.

S.B.D.: And it is a music that does not die.

B.E.: Eric Charry writes in his book that most of the horn players in these bands came from military bands and were more familiar with European music, but the string players, especially guitarists, came from the tradition of griotism. He says that it was the mixing of these two experiences that created this music.

S.B.D.: That's it.

B.E.: And he says that the song "Regard Sure le Passe" was a very important moment in the ascendancy of tradition in popular music.

S.B.D.: Yes, yes. "Regard Sur le Passe" is a masterpiece.

B.E.: It's interesting, because you went into popular music rather than tradition. But in the context of Sekou Toure's Guinea you had to bring the two things together, tradition and modernity. Were you happy with that?

Very happy. Right up to this day. I am very proud of that.

B.E.: What was the competition like between these groups--Bembeya, Keletigui, Horoya?

S.B.D.: It wasn't mean, but when you have competition--as the word suggests--you don't want to lose. If I am competing with you, I want to win. It's not mean, but it's a struggle. … No, it isn't like that. No, no, no, no. Each one of us, we talk, we greet one another. We competed. One would say, "I'm going to be number one." The other he would say, "It's me who is going to be number one." We would greet each other that way at the end of the day, "May the best win." Ah, yes.

B.E.: Okay, let's talk about now. I understand that you are going to make your own album after this project. What's the plan? Big group? Small group?

S.B.D.: It's a small group. I have two musical possibilities. I've already done a guitar album, as you know. [That's Diamond Fingers (Dakar Sound).] Now, what I want to do is a mix of dance music styles. One part is the guitar. The other is music sung by myself. As always, three guitars, tumba, and two chorus singers.

B.E.: But this won't be Bembeya Jazz.

S.B.D.: No, it's Sekou Bembeya Diabate. You won't regret it!

B.E.: I'm sure. Tell me about three guitars. Was it always that way?

S.B.D.: All that is to improve the sound. Because we, with just one accompanist, with the evolution of the music in big halls and all that, we had to find another possibility to fill out the music. That's why I decided to take another accompanist.

B.E.: When did you decide that?

S.B.D.: Oh, it must be 20 years ago now. More than that.

B.E.: I can't wait. Thanks so much, Sekou.

S.B.D.: Thank you, and be sure to greet all of America. Vive l'Amerique! Vive la Guinea!

Salifou Kaba

Banning Eyre: Why don't you start by introducing yourself.

Salifou Kaba: I am Salifou Kaba, cabinet maker and musician by profession. I was born in Kankan in 1943. I went to Koranic school, French school. In the end, I was oriented towards an apprenticeship center and cabinet making. I spent four years there and I emerged as a cabinet maker. That was how I went to Beyla, two-hundred and some kilometers from Beyla to work making tables, chairs and cabinets. I had my brother there who had done his studies in Havana. He came back with lots of Cuban records. I sang along with those records. At my workshop, I sang lots of Cuban songs. During my vacations, I went to Kankan to buy wood. I had studied carpentry with [Aboubacar] Demba Camara. So when I went back to Kankan, I went to his family.

He came and found me where I had bought my wood, and we went to Beyla together. When we got to Beyla, my diploma said that I was an engineer. On his diploma, it was written, "passable." The head of the workshop demanded proof for Demba, so we [did something to the diploma] and he was hired at the same salary as me. As we had been accomplices in Kankan before arriving in Beyla, the Cuban songs I was singing, we would bring them home and sing them together. We knew them already. So there was a tourist hotel in town called Relais. Every night we found Bembeya already in place. But there were no real singers. There was a girl who sang, but it was not really the thing. Everyone was singing a little.

B.E.: So what year was that?

S.K.: 1962… So as I say, everybody was singing--the drummer, the bass player. Then we came. Sekou, the guitarist, he had passed by our workshop and seen us working and singing. He asked us to come by the Relais that night. "We are going to form a little group." That night we went to the Relais at about 8:00. Sekou had his acoustic guitar. The tourists were there, eating. We introduced a song and we started to sing. As my voice was softer than Demba's, they took me. My voice was higher, more feminine--right up to the present. Demba was a tenor. But I said, "I can't come into the group if Demba doesn't come also." That's how it happened. They said, "Okay, if that's how it is. Demba will come too." That's how we started… After that, Bembeya started to have success at festival after festival. We went to Havana together.

B.E.: Really?

S.K.: In '64.

B.E.: Wow, and you were such a fan of Cuban music. What was it like to go there?

We saw the Cubans and they were good. We sang in Manding, but before leaving, we had learned a song by Belardo Berosa. This song was called "El Guantanamo." We sang this song. You know that the Cuban musicians used written music. But we had nothing like that. We came, we played. And Belardo Berosa was astonished. He said, "Is this song known in Africa?" Demba laughed and cried. He said, "If you come to Africa, they are going to eat you alive, because everyone loves you there." Old Barosa cried also. He said that Demba was his son now.

So we stayed there for a couple of months, and afterwards, we came back to Guinea. We continued home to Beyla. At that point, we were not yet a national orchestra. We were still a Federal band. We stayed there and we kept competing in the competitions, because at that time, every year, there were competitions among the regions. Best band. Best theater group. Best football team. Even writers. They would choose the best. So in Beyla now, in the band competition, there were two runners up. There was Kébendo Jazz of Gékédougou, another Federal district, and there was Bembeya Jazz of Beyla.

Afterwards we went back to Beyla, but we were angry. We didn't want to be runners up. We want to come in first. So when we got back to Beyla, we started looking hard. We went to the griots, the old people, in the moonlight where the children sing and clap. We went and listened, and we took these things. It's like [SINGS "Akoukou We," a song reprised on the new album] We took these things because they were popular. So now, at the second competition, we were first!

B.E.: And Kebendo Jazz?

S.K.: Second place! So that's how we got to Conakry as a national orchestra. With us, when you are national you have become truly professional. After we arrived in Conakry, we did nothing other than music. We were paid by the government and every morning, we rehearsed from 10:00 or 11:00. In the evening, everyone went to meet their friends, their girlfriends, parents. We had become professional now. But at night, starting at 9:00, there was dancing in the capital. We started at 9:00, right up until 2:00 in the morning.

B.E.: Every night?

Except for Friday, because on Fridays in Guinea, there were the neighborhood meetings. People would meet to discuss the problems they were having in the neighborhood. So there was no music on Fridays. Monday also. That was the day of rest.

B.E.: Salifou, I want you to tell me you how Demba died. I know that this event broke the spirit of the band for awhile.

S.K.: Very much so! His accident happened like this. We were invited to Dakar by an association called Les Daganois. They are Peuls. Before leaving, the Minister of Youth invited us to his place. He told us we must play very well. Demba listened to his words and then said, "M. Minister, we must go, but we have no instruments."

At that time, in Africa, there were no sound system rental companies. None. Every band had to travel with its own instruments. It was not like now. So Demba said, "We will go to Senegal, and present ourselves with our broken instruments. Truly, this will not make me happy."

The minister said, "Okay. The government has ordered new instruments from Italy. They will come. But as the date is close, you must go as you are. When you return, you will find the instruments waiting." … The next day, Demba came in his motorcycle. It had a sidecar. We were rehearsing at the Jardin de Guinea. Before the rehearsal, he told us, I am going to visit a [psychic] woman in Coya, 50 km from Conakry. After the rehearsal, he called us together and told us that this woman in Coya, she threw shells and said that there would be an accident, that Bembeya had to make a sacrifice. When he said that, each member of the band gave 100 francs, 100 francs each to buy kola nuts. And we prayed with them and gave them away.

After we parted, Demba took his motorcycle. In turning in front of the dancing [club], he crashed into another car. We said, "Ah! Demba was right. If we had not made this sacrifice, it would have been serious." It was two days later that we traveled to Dakar. In the airplane, he and I were together. We always took a little money of the country we were traveling to and after the plane landed, we went to the bar and had a coffee. This time, it was my turn to buy the coffee. Demba used to drink coffee three times a day. He loved that. I said, "Demba, I've bought the coffee," and he said, "Ah, really, I don't feel like coffee now." He had a novel with him, "The Count of Monte Cristo." Even on the plane he was reading that. So now he said he was tired and wanted to rest.

We got our baggage and left the terminal. There was a car from the embassy there to meet us. Now, as I was both a singer and the sound engineer, Sekou told me to go in that car and go to the venue to listen to the amplifiers and make sure everything is okay. Demba followed me with his book. I said, "Demba, stay here." He said, "No, no. You will drop me at the hotel, and then you can go on to the see where we're playing." That's how he got in.
We took the cliff road. The driver was very happy. He did not have the price of a ticket. He told us he would leave us at the hotel, go and find his girlfriend, then come and find us at the hotel and go dancing! He was happy, pumping, pumping. I saw the speedometer rising. 80, 90, right up to 110. I felt something rising in my mouth, but I could not say it. I could not tell him to slow down. So it was me, Demba and Sekou. Sekou was in front with the driver. I was in the back with Demba. Demba was to my right. So as the car reached full speed, we saw another car approaching. The chauffeur veered and then he couldn't get control of the car again. We hit the sidewalk and the car rolled. I saw the streetlights above, below, above, below. The door flew open and Demba was projected out. His head hit the sidewalk. He was curled up like that when we found him.

B.E.: That is terrible. Thank you for recounting that.

S.K.: When Demba was gone, we trained three singers. There was me, Nagna Mory Kouyaté and Moussa Touré. We named this trio Bazooka. Bazooka was like the guns used in the military.

B.E.: Interesting. Demba Camara was not a griot, right? But Nagna Mory Kouyaté was.

S.K.: That's right. That was the first time a griot sang in Bembeya Jazz.

B.E.: But you had already done "Regard Sur le Passe" by this time.

S.K.: Yes. Demba sang that. But Nagna Mory redid it after the death of Demba.

B.E.: So this was the group that went to FESTAC in Nigeria.

S.K.: Yes. In 1977. That was something. Where were staying as artists, 300 meters away, there was Fela's place. And there, with Fela, we met Bob Marley.

B.E.: Naturally you knew Bob Marley's music by then.

S.K.: Absolutely.

B.E.: And Fela too?

S.K.: Of course. His music was also known in Guinea. So, there had been lots of festivals, but this one in Nigeria was the biggest. It was really good. All the African musicians, Europeans, Americans. It was full. Everyone was there.

B.E.: Tell me about meeting Bob Marley.

S.K.: There was me, the current chef d'orchestre, Achken Kaba. We had a trumpeter, Sekou, the fat one, and also Barry of Khaloum Star. We went to Fela's together. Fela really liked Sekou Touré. In his bar, he had posted the photographs of African heads of state, Sekou Touré and everyone, even Idi Amin.

B.E.: Oh!

[LAUGHS] Yes, even Idi Amin. Well, we can't condemn him. That's what he did. So Fela, when he came to sing at midnight, he took the microphone and he said, "There are musicians here from Guinea who are happy to come to our bar. Bembeya Jazz." And he cited the names of the musicians. And Bob Marley came and said, "I want to meet the musicians of Bembeya Jazz." We went. He spoke in English and I understood a little. We spoke in French and he understood a little. That's how we talked. He presented his wife, Rita. In the end, he left me with his wife and he went, I don't know where. I thought he had gone to [MAKES SMOKING GESTURE].

B.E.: With Fela.

S.K.:Voila. We stayed there until 7:00 in the morning.

B.E.: Things got harder after the death of Sekou Touré, I understand. You had Club Bembeya, but not as much work as before, right up until the last recording in 1987. What did you do during those quiet years?

S.K.: It was a bit difficult. Before the death of Sekou Touré, he explained that the government had a lot of problems. He wanted the national artists to be paid as public functionaries. He said, as there is Bembeya Jazz, Keletigui and his Tambourinis, Horoya Band, Bala et ses Baladins, you are all going to have your autonomy. Keletigui stood up and said, "M. President, we want to stay as public functionaries." But we in Bembeya, we did not. We wanted to be independent.

The president said, "Try. You must try. If it's not good, the government is for you. We are your brothers. You can come back, but first, try." They gave each group a "dancing" [club] with some money. I think it was 60,000 francs, for the building, to get chairs, to paint a little. The government gave us this money along with a complete set of instruments. We had to manage from there. So each group worked its corner. Club Bembeya was for us. Paillotte was for Keletigui. Jardin de Guinea was for Bala. Miniere was for Horoya Band.

But soon, this coincided with the death of Sekou [Touré]. The military rose to power. They just left us like that. Up to this moment, they have just left us as we are. We have our bar. We have no instruments now. No sound system. But we have our place. So if Bembeya remains like that, we have to struggle. If not, we will just sink.

B.E.: Mangala [Bembeya's drummer from day one to the present] told me that the bar provides a little income for the band, but not much, I imagine.

S.K.: Not much. I am still a cabinet maker. I have my workshop. I make bar decorations now.

B.E.: Now, the music is starting again. This really is a new chapter for the band, isn't it?

S.K.: We're counting on you now, the journalists. What counts in the world now is the media. We musicians we can play, but without the media, it won't work.

B.E.: We'll try! Thanks, Salifou.

S.K.: Thank you.
Contributed by: Banning Eyre

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