Bembeya Jazz, Guinea's Legendary Orchestra  

 

 

 

 

Feature by Hortense Fuller

Photography of Bembeya Jazz at New York's Central Park Summerstage and Joe's Pub by William Farrington

 
   

   
Bembeya Jazz, the legendary Orchestra of Guinea, made its New York debut at Central Park's Summerstage in August 2003.  Fans gathered at Central Park Summerstage to witness the event while heavy rains threatened to sabotage the shows.  Most were in attendance to see this legendary orchestra perform their classics, others had just strolled in and were to be pleasantly surprised.  The show was riveting, melding Guinea's rich musical traditions into a stew of Afro-Cuban grooves with a hints of Congolese Rumba and Afrobeat.  Rare for an outdoor event, even rarer for a band's New York debut, the large crowd braved the downpour for a moderate length set that was, in the end, sadly cut short due to the threat of lightening. The band played many of the hits that made it famous, including the rousing trumpet fanfare "Bembeya,"  the Makossa flavored "Sabou," the hypnotic and seductive "Gbapie" showcasing Diabate's Hawaiian slide guitar and more traditional songs including "Lefa" and "Soli au Wassoulou."  
   

   
The crowd was thrilled when the stage announcer provided a solution to the foul weather... we learned that that a follow-up concert was being scheduled the night afterwards at Joe's Pub, an intimate performing arts bar located near Astor Place in Manhattan.  The performance promised to be slightly different - a spotlight on lead guitarist, Sekou Bembeya Diabate, who is known in music circles as 'Diamond Fingers' due to his skill on guitar.  Other members of the band were scheduled to join 'Diamond Fingers' on stage at Joe's Pub to recreate the magic kindled at Central Park.  The show was therefore one part continuation of the Central Park concert, and one part solo performance by Diabate, featuring such classics as "Diamond Fingers" from his 1990s solo release.  
   

   
Bembeya's 2003 America tour is part of a larger effort by the band, and record label Marabi, to bring the orchestra back into the limelight.  The band had regrouped in 2002 to perform at the Musique Metisses festival in Angouleme, France, an annual event that has become a big draw for African music in France.  Immediately following their triumphant performance,  Christian Mousset who runs Marabi Records convinced the band to return to the studio to record "Bembeya," effectively breaking the band's 14 years of recording silence.  It is an album of refined style that representing a reworking of orchestra's greatest hits.  The crisp recording is an official 'rebirth' for this orchestra.   
   

   
More importantly, the band's reemergence offers new fans a chance to discover and witness live and direct the sounds of Guinea's golden era of music.  The 2003 tour has taken the band to Europe, Canada and the United States in support of this new release with the goal of gaining support for the band's continued efforts.  From our observation, Bembeya Jazz performs some of the most exciting live African music currently on the tour circuit by successfully rekindling the fire originally lit during the 1960s.   
   

   
A Brief History of Bembeya Jazz  
   
The birth of the orchestra in the early 1960s coincided with a program initiated by President Sekou Toure to sponsor regional and national arts groups.  This important cultural and nationalistic initiative fueled the development of a great many bands within Guinea.  Bembeya Jazz was one of these bands, formed in the remote town of Beyla in the country's southeast.  Both Dore Clement (tenor sax) and Mohamed Kaba (trumpet and chef d'orchestre) joined the band in the 1960s.  Drummer Conde Mory Mangala was also a founding member of the group.  The band participated in a variety of regional and national musical contests during the 1960s, winning many of the competitions and subsequently became certified a 'national' orchestra.  This status allowed the band to travel from Beyla to Conakry, Guinea's capital, and essentially relocate there.  
   
At the height of the bands career, Bembeya Jazz performed at the 1965 gatherings of the ''Tricontinentale of Cuba'', as well as at the Pan-African festival of Alger in 1969 and at FESTAC (Festival for Black Arts and Culture) at Lagos in 1977.  Participation in these events further increased Bembeya's fame throughout the African continent and beyond.   
   

   
The band has not been without its setbacks.  In 1973, the band witnessed the tragic death of its lead singer Aboubacar Demba Camara who died in a car crash in Dakar, Senegal.  In the early 1980s, Bembeya recruited young singer Sekouba "Bambino" Diabate, who brought a new spark of energy to the veteran band.  However, Bambino was to later leve the band and embark on a successful solo career.  We recommend visiting the AfricaSounds feature on Sekouba "Bambino" written by Martin Sinnock for a closer look at this Guinean star's solo career.  To review, click on the link button:  [LINK].  
   

   
Shortly before Sekou Toure's death in 1984, the President began to denationalize Guinea's bands, and according to  sources provided each band with its own nightclub, the idea being that the income generated from the club would keep the bands afloat and independent.  Bembeya Jazz was presented its own club, entitled "Club Bembeya".  However, declining economic situation in Guinea during the 1980s and a new generation of younger artists made it economically unfeasible for Bembeya Jazz to stay operational.  By the 1990s, Sekou Bembeya Diabate relocated to Paris where he focused on several successful solo projects for record label Dakar Sounds including the legendary acoustic album "Diamond Fingers"   .  Meanwhile, in Guinea the other band members remained finding alternative sources of income.  It was not until 1998 when Diamond Fingers was called back to Guinea to assist in the 100th Annivesiary of Samory Toure that the band decided to make a second go.      
   
The explosion of musical talent from Guinea could be witnessed also by the talent of competing bands such as Balla et ses Balladins, Horoya Band and Keletigui et ses Tambourinis.  For additional information on these groups and others, please refer to Martin Sinnock's feature on the Guinean music scene, " Guinée Conakry with Sekouba "Bambino" [LINK], an article which goes into greater depth on the competing orchestras from Guinea.  
   

   
The epic "Regard Sur le Passe" was the winning entry in Sekou Toure's contest to commemorate the great Manding leader.  The band released scores of albums, many of which have been recently reissued on the highly recommended Syllart reissues. In light of this, AfricaSounds has assembled a discography of the band (see below) including ordering information from Sterns Music, who have exclusive distribution right for the Americas.   
   

   
Bembeya Jazz - Musicians  

The orchestra's current line-up, who participated on the 2002 album "Bembeya", includes:

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Sekou Bembeya Diabate ('Diamond Fingers') - Lead Guitar, Arrangements

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Mohamed Achken Kaba - Trumpet, Director

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Koita Aboubacar - Tenor Saxophone

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Dore Clement - Alto Saxophone

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Conde Mory Mangala - Drums

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Papa Kouyate - Percussion

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Kaba Salifou - Vocals

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Youssouf Bah - Vocals

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Doumbouya Alseny - Vocals

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Conde Mamady - Bass Guitar

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Kouyate Manady - Guitar

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Kova Bavogui - Guitar

 

 

 
Bembeya Jazz - Discography  
   

The recent international release by Bembeya Jazz entitled "Bembeya" on the Marabi label has created a buzz and kindled newfound interest in the legendary Guinean orchestra.  Fans may find themselves rapidly digesting this new release and craving for more from this orchestra's golden era.  There is good news on this front...  between 1999-2000 the Syliphone/Sylla label reissued the cream of the crop in terms of the orchestra's earlier output.  These reissues, along with the solo albums by Diamond Fingers, are now being distributed within the USA by Sterns Music.  Our friends at Sterns, who have a mail order business, would be more than happy to supply you with the best of Bembeya Jazz.  AfricaSounds has therefore assembled the following discography for Bembeya Jazz including pertinent album information.  You may contact Stern's Music by clicking on their logo (see left) or by contacting them at http://www.sternsmusic.com/  
   

Bembeya Jazz (Guinea)

Title: "Bembeya"

Label: Marabi, 2002

Bembeya Jazz (Guinea)

Title: "Defi & Continuite"

Label: Syliphone/Sylla, 2000

Bembeya Jazz (Guinea)

Title: "Authenticite 73 / Parade Africaine"

Label: Syliphone/Sylla,  2000

Bembeya Jazz National (Guinea)

Title: "10 Ans de Succes"

Label: Syliphone/Sylla, 1999

Bembeya Jazz National (Guinea)
Title: "Hommage a Demba Camara"

Label: Syliphone/Sylla, 2000

Bembeya Jazz National (Guinea)

Title: "Regard Sur Le Passe"

Label: Syliphone/Sylla, 1999

Bembeya Jazz National (Guinea)
Title: "Telegramme/Yekeke (Best of)

Label: Sonodisc, 1993

Bembeya Jazz National (Guinea)

Title: "Wa Kele"

ESPERA 1989

   

Sekouba "Diamond Fingers" Diabate (Guinea)

"Diamond Fingers"

Label: Dakar Sound, 1997

Sekouba "Diamond Fingers" Diabate (Guinea)

Title: "Samba Gaye"

DAKAR SOUND 1997

Bembeya Jazz Booking Information:

Ritmo Artists

Phone: 512-447-5661

Fax: 512-447-5886

Contact us at info@ritmoartists.com