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"Bembeya" from Bembeya
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Bembeya Jazz, Bembeya (World Village) Afropop Pioneers Return

Bembeya Jazz: Guinea's Four Decade-Old Band

Colonialism, independence, diaspora, and economics. These ingredients have been brewing with tradition for decades in West African music. Just as a good stew tastes even better the next day, the best pioneering bands of Afropop have returned sounding tastier than ever.  

Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab, founded in 1970, and Mali’s Super Rail Band, founded in 1971, each reemerged with both new material and historic recordings in the past couple of years, and both toured North America. Now comes Guinea’s even older band, Bembeya Jazz, formed in 1961, with a new CD and an unprecedented month-long summer tour of North America.  Bembeya—set for a June 10, 2003 release on World Village—is their first recording in fourteen years.  

All three bands provide musical snapshots of the sunrise of independent African nations, simultaneously preserving tradition and creating a modern sound. In the case of Baobab, the band was formed to entertain the newly empowered politicians and intelligentsia. New governments funded Super Rail and Bembeya to propagate a newfound post-colonial African identity, asserting time-honored values to suit the fresh mood of independence. All three formed at a time and place when Afro-Cuban music resonated and possibly became the bridge between traditional music and modern instrumentation.  

In the mid-’60s, Bembeya Jazz, which takes its name from the river that runs through their remote hometown of Beyla, was certified as a national band by Guinea’s first president Sekou Touré. The band moved to the capital, Conakry, where they performed as many as six nights each week and felt pressure to develop the hottest spine-tingling sounds. From this era emerged their signature four-guitar section, the introduction of Hawaiian slide guitar, and stunning stage performances.  

Bembeya’s creative director Aboubacar Demba Camara was killed in a tragic car crash in 1973. The band was eventually able to re-group and right before the 1984 death of President Sekou Touré, he denationalized Bembeya (their first opportunity to operate internationally) and gave them their own nightclub. But the ’80s saw a significant economic decline in Guinea and most of the band members had to look outside of the Guinean music scene for their primary livelihood. “The band was not broken up,” says lead guitarist Sekou “Diamond Fingers” Diabaté. “But in life, there are ups and downs, good moments and bad moments. So you wait. We were waiting.”  

The band’s latest fierce line-up includes four members that hail from the group’s formative years, decades ago. Sekou “Diamond Fingers” Diabaté has not let up with his fiery guitar embellishments and entertaining stage antics. The dulcet, high tenor voice of Salifou Kaba joins Doré Clement on tenor sax, Mohamed Kaba on trumpet, and Condé Mory Mangala on drums; all veterans of the dozen-member outfit.  

Just as Bembeya sought number one status in 1960s Guinea, they are sure to give Baobab and Super Rail a friendly run for their money on the international stage.