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"Bembeya" from Bembeya
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Concert review

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Sunday Telegraph (London), Concert review >>

BY: Philip Sweeney

Diamond fingered geezers When Bembeya Jazz play at home in Guinea, the audience goes wild and smothers them with money. The West African band deserves nothing less when they play here next month, says Philip Sweeney.

Conakry, the capital of the Republic of Guinea, on a sultry night in January. The smart new Franco-Guinean Cultural Centre is hosting an "exceptionelle soiree de gala", the return of the mythic and incomparable Bembeya Jazz. Outside, the night-watchman, armed with a machete, observes the Toyotas and Peugeots of the beau monde. On stage, attired in a period assortment of tuxedos and waistcoats, the band launch into their signature overture, Bembeya Jazz Nationale! Nationale et internationale!

The two drummers set up a rattling, trundling base for the tight mesh of ringing notes from the four guitarists. Sekou "Diamond Fingers" Diabate, Bembeya's star soloist, unleashes melodic volleys of echoing tenor or shimmering falsetto on his Gibson, the brass punches in and the three singers move in easy step with the back line.

Age may have stiffened their movements - half the original members are in their sixties, only four are new blood - but the band swings mightily. Two numbers in, half the seats are vacated and the audience is swaying and yelling approval. Around Mami Wata, an up-tempo ode to a river spirit, an inebriated fan has to be disentangled from Diamond Fingers Diabate in mid-solo.

The huge hit, Lefa, follows, an old chant from the ceremonies accompanying female circumcision, and soon magnificently robed audience members are striding on to the stage to scatter banknotes over the musicians' heads. The evening ends amid general euphoria, with the drunken man pumping my hand and sobbing, "I have the heart of a woman!" before everyone hurries off home to avoid the military checkpoints and bandits.

"Why do people cry when they hear Bembeya? Because we bring back the Belle Epoque for them," says Achken Kaba. Kaba is not only Bembeya's trumpeter, but chef d'orchestre. In 1961, Kaba went to buy the band's first instruments in the Ivory Coast across the border from Beyla, Bembeya's home town, traversed by the river that gave them their name. "Bembeya recalls the time when we were all avid for our culture. Today the government doesn't have time for culture, there are too many problems . . ."

Problems, yes, Conakry has a few. The one-time Paris of Africa languishes near destitution, deprived of electricity and water half the time, its pot-holed streets infested at night by robbers in and out of uniform. Kaba's group symbolises Guinea at its creative zenith. Bembeya Jazz is the most important of a wave of vintage West African bands reappearing on the international stage, three or four decades after they created a new "authentic" African popular music in the first days of their countries' independence.

Last year's triumphant European tour by the old Orchestre Baobab from Senegal alerted the world to the sound, known as Manding Swing after the region's major ethnicity; and its latest purveyor to re-emerge is the Super Rail Band of Mali, so called because it was formed by Malian state railways. Buena Vista Social Club de nos jours, the Manding Swingers are this year's major revelation at music festivals across the globe.

Bembeya Jazz are the first and greatest of the genre. British cognoscenti still go misty-eyed at the mention of the Guineans' 1987 performance at Covent Garden's Africa Centre: "best band in the history of the world" was one of the more cautious assessments, and the superlatives are being dusted off for their reincarnation.

The beauty of Bembeya's music encapsulates the idealism of the years when the group was formed. But this was a period with a darker side. Bembeya's story is set against the Jacobean bloodiness of the regime of one of Africa's most charismatic dictators, the hero-tyrant Sekou Toure. It was his celebrated "Non" to de Gaulle's offer of French affiliation in 1958 that made France's one-time colony a magnet for revolutionaries - the Black Panther Stokeley Carmichael fled there from the FBI.

As first President, Toure became a figure of veneration to anti-colonialists and of terror to the tens of thousands of his real or imagined opponents. Along with Mobutu of the Congo, Toure created, in effect, modern African music, and until the Guinean despot's death in 1984, Bembeya Jazz were unsurpassed as African musical figureheads.

Sekou Toure had always paid close attention to music - his first action on taking power was to ban colonial music from the radio and start Africanising the arts. The provincial governors were ordered to set up programmes to create a new modernised folkloric music: state-employed bands, ranked by competitions.

The Governor of Beyla was an educationalist named Emile Conde, an old companion of Sekou Toure, committed to the ideological revolution, as was Achken Kaba. "Up to then we'd listened to French music, studied French history; we needed to rediscover our own culture," he says. "Emile Conde sent me to barter palm-cabbages for instruments. Then we began collecting traditional songs and giving them modern arrangements."

For five years Bembeya played around the country, shining in regional competitions. In 1964 they visited Guinea's socialist ally Cuba, strengthening the Latin shading in their music. In 1966, Bembeya were made one of four "national bands", undoubtedly an initiative of the President. Established at the Palmier Club on handsome state salaries, Bembeya rehearsed every day and performed every night. Except Friday, which was devoted across Guinea to obligatory "neighbourhood meetings", where the policy of the single ruling party, the P.D.G., was disseminated.

Music was an important vehicle. The bands' repertoires began to include items such as P.D.G. and L'Armee Guineenne. In 1968, Bembeya created their masterpiece Regard sur le passe, a medley of praise songs to the anti-French resistance heroes of history, figures such as Samory Toure, from whom the President claimed descendency.

Judicious flattery, because Sekou Toure was turning into a fearsome despot. One by one, the Guinean political and military establishment was disappearing into the sea-front cell-blocks of the gendarmerie headquarters Camp Boiro, to die by torture, summary shooting or, Camp Boiro's speciality, the "black diet" - starvation. In 1971 it was the turn of Emile Conde.

Guineans who did well under Toure are understandably reluctant to discuss these events. Ask Achken Kaba about the fate of Bembeya's old patron, and he becomes strangely distrait. A little detective work soon reveals the truth, however: the former Governor of Beyla was arrested by militia while hunting, interned in Camp Boiro, shot in secret and thrown into an unmarked mass grave.

By the end of the 1970s, Bembeya's fame had spread across the continent. Guinea's economy, however, was in tatters. In 1983, Toure denationalised the bands, giving each a nightclub as base and income support. A year later, Guinea's first President died of a heart attack and a coup and wave of revenge executions erased his regime. Unsalaried, unfashionable and political outsiders, the former national bands were on hard times. Diamond Fingers Diabate spent much of the 1990s in Paris.

It was France which provided the band's lifeline, with festival bookings and a contract for Bembeya's first CD in years. Once again, the rave reviews are appearing in the European music press. Things may be looking up at home, too. The international interest has galvanised Conakry media, and put Bembeya's name back on the agenda. And the Toure era is showing signs of rehabilitation, the former President's name suddenly emblazoned in chrome across the gates of his former palace, and Toure's family allowed back to reclaim their homes and celebrate with a party featuring . . . Bembeya Jazz.

Like Havana, Conakry today is a museum of its recent past, mouldering in the tropical rain and sun. Round the corner from Achken Kaba's house, the walls of Camp Boiro still sport their shell-holes, and the old night-spots their palm-shaded concrete dance-floors, ready for the graceful sauntering music that is arguably Guinea's finest achievement. "Music nowadays is industrial," says Kaba, "and life is harder and more dangerous . . . that's why people cry for the old days, and we cry in our hearts with them, but we can bring them back." 06/29/03
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