Sekouba "Bambino" and Guinée Conakry

Feature and photos by Martin Sinnock



Martin Sinnock, renowned Congolese music expert and a frequent contributor to as well as Songlines and The Beat Magazine, recently returned from Guinée and its capital Conakry.  He was an invited guest of Ibrahima Sylla, producer of the Syllart/Africando label on the occasion Sekouba Bambino's latest release, Sinikan.

Martin grabbed the opportunity to take in as much as he could during his trip.  He found Guinée to be visually stunning and the warmth of the people he encountered comes through in his photography.  As always, Martin's writing provides extraordinary insight into his subject and in this case illuminates the current state of Guinée's music scene.  We are delighted to present his findings here and hope you enjoy them as much as we do. 

What follows is the full-length version of Martin's travel diary, please note an abridged version recently appeared in The Beat Magazine.  We can think of no better person to bring the richness of Guinée's musical culture to the world's attention.  


Guinée and its capital Conakry may be a country that has been slow to open its doors to the outside world but it is without doubt a musically rich nation blessed with a top star who ranks amongst the best of Africa’s solo vocal performers. Ibrahima Sylla, producer of the Syllart/Africando label invited a small group of journalists and a French tv crew to Conakry to witness the launch of the new album Sinikan by Sekouba Bambino. I was lucky enough to tag along.  
For several years Sekouba "Bambino" Diabaté has been Guinée’s most popular singer. His story has been well documented: Born in 1963 into a "griot" family and discovered as a young vocal talent in his home in Siguiri in Haute Guinée. Enrolment at the age of 16 into the nation’s top group Bembeya Jazz National at the instigation of then President Sékou Touré. Solo success after the virtual demise of Bembeya. International success with the release of the cd Kassa in 1997 and finally integration, on an occasional basis, into the Afro-Latin international mega-stars "Africando".  


Bambino in repetition

It’s a simple enough story and there is not exactly much recorded musical evidence to decorate the tale. However, the music that Sekouba Bambino has recorded gives easily appreciated testimony to the man’s remarkable talent. With Bembeya he recorded half a dozen excellent LPs before commencing his celebrated solo career. The cd release of tracks taken from his first two solo cassettes is a masterpiece of understated Guinéen semi-acoustic music. Le Destin (Popular African Music oa 202) collects eight songs recorded in Abidjan at the beginning of the 1990s. Kora, ngoni and balafon lead the instrumentation, augmented by electric guitar and percussion. The only slightly intrusive element is the clumsy use of programmed drums on a couple of tracks which clashes badly with the general homogenous nature of the music. The follow up Kassa (Stern’s STCD 1074) was in a different musical league and captures Bambino in a full-on Guinéen-Paris fusion that almost acts as a blue-print for modern West African "Mande" popular music. Bambino is one of the few artists from Guinée to have received the benefit of international exposure. His producer Ibrahima Sylla is a genius when it comes to the fusion of African music and sophisticated production facilities, and Bambino has profited from the Syllart/Africando label’s experience in marketing some of Africa’s, and specifically West Africa’s, greatest acts.  

Sekouba Bambino – Sinikan (Next Music CDS 8932) is the latest release from a musician who is desperately proud of his country’s rich musical tradition, but at the same time keen to present his music in a contemporary and very internationally appealing manner.


Whilst Sinikan is very much Bambino’s solo album with 11 of the titles being self composed it would be fair to give almost equal credit to the musical talent of his arranger on the project François Breant. Breant, a classicly trained musician, has interests in many diverse styles of music and is equally adept working in jazz, blues, classical, pop or African music.

[L to R]: François Breant, Bambino & Maitre Aliou Barry


Breant and Bambino at the Stadium  Breant, singers & Bambino in the hotel compound

Whilst he is the first to acknowledge that he is not a specialist in West African "Mande" music it is his open approach to his subject and his rare musical vision that makes his contribution so special. François Breant was the arranger on half of Salif Keita’s Soro album, one of the most successful African recordings ever made and a disc that almost single-handedly caused the Western world to sit up and take notice of what might be happening musically throughout Africa. Under Sylla’s ispirational guiding hand he has given a similar treatment to Bambino’s songs on Sinikan and the collaboration is one that both musicians and the producer value highly.

Legendary Producer Ibrahim Sylla with his wife, Tapa Sylla

The album commences with the title track "Sinikan" (Prejudiced Word) in which Bambino sings of the risks of prejudice and the penalties incurred by those who deny others their individual qualities. Musically the song is typical of the electric Mande style, very commercial, and yet at the same time it is experimental. The electric guitar and traditional ngoni lute interplay over a percolating percussion bed, which is exactly what one might expect from Bambino. His tenor voice, strong, slightly pleading, but brimming with confidence, is backed by a female chorus in conventional fashion, but there is an undercurrent to the entire song that immediately grabs the listener’s attention. Swirls of Egyptian sounding violin orchestration wash across the rhythm. The guitar solos crisply while the oriental strings dart in and out of the arrangement in a multi-cultural mix that works in comfortable harmony.  
"Decouragé" is a far more predictable Paris-Guinée fusion with bright horn arrangements enlivening a funky electric guitar phrase. Guitarist Ousmane Kouyaté perfectly transposes a traditional phrase onto electric instruments while Bambino warns us of the discouraging effect of jealousy and criticism of others, especially our partners.  
"Ni Mafélé" (Look!) commences with Bambino’s 12 year old son reciting a passage about the plight of children caught up in war, disease or slavery. As befits the text the song is sinister, plaintive and emotional. A violin solo meshes with a dramatic electric beat adorned with the Peulh flute of Ali Wagué.  


Bambino and family at home

"Famou" (Understood) is a Manding musical celebration. Cascading balafon and kora backed by ngoni lute gently play against each other as François Breant’s oriental strings swirl around the melody. An accordion increases the Egyptian feel while Bambino, responded by female chorus, sings to the women of the world asking them to stay strong and not to listen to gossip.  
"Ndiwa Ndiwa" (I’m going to go) is another steaming and churning rhythm with fabulous balafon solo and ngoni embellishment. A saxophone interjects as Bambino sings in praise of a respected friend. Again the female chorus is delightful and the arrangement perfectly complements the sweet melody without intruding.  
On "Diougouya Magni" (The hazard of evil) Breant gives us the Salif Keita "Soro" magic again. A plaintive harmonica drifts in over a slowly pulsing double bass. Bambino’s assured vocal cuts through in the way that Salif did throughout "Soro" as he warns us of the dangers of being unkind and perpetuating evil against others.  
On "Ate Tolama" (I possess nothing) Bambino mixes a more conventional upbeat Mande style with a funky modern jazz arrangement complete with organ vamps and bold horn section. Again the text is moralistic with Bambino affirming his belief in the ultimate powers of God.  
The dramatic dry tones of the Peulh flute slash across the gentle "Wassoulou" style rhythm of "Gnangnimi" (Seeking counsel). Again the subtle use of violin, played by Jean-Lou Descamps, adds another ambiance as Bambino sings of the dangers of the use of witchcraft and again speaks of his religious conviction.  


Bambino family home fete

"Banandjou" (The Baobab) is my personal favourite from the entire album. It is as uplifting a piece of Mande music as I have heard in many years. Although there is plenty going on musically in this François Breant composition (the sole track on which Bambino did not compose the music) it is the melodic simplicity and the charm of the performance that makes it stand out. Credit to Ali Wagué with his traditional flute and the marvellous French musician Nicolas Guéret who duets on conventional flute and also adds soprano saxophone. Bambino sings in hommage to his step-mother and compares her to the ubiquitous baobab tree.  
By contrast "Promesse" meshes a hip-hop rhythm and Diziz la Peste’s Senegalese rap to Bambino’s Mande roots style. The Peulh flute and circular balafon/ngoni bed balance perfectly with a chunky drum pattern. The simple moral song-text tells us not to make a promise that we are unable to fulfil, and at the same time to stand proud in one’s self-belief.  
It was obvious that the initial media attention to "Sinikan" would fall onto Sekouba Bambino’s cover version of James Brown’s "It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World". There is actually very little reference to the Soul-Funk of the original and the only direct English lyrical reference comes in the female choral refrain which also retains the original melody line. The main part of the song is Bambino’s own Malinke text, and so most preconceptions of a James Brown style re-creation should be forgotten and the song should be enjoyed on its own merit.  
The remix version of "Famou" at the end of the cd adds little to the earlier version other than beefing-up the rhythm pattern for the dance-floor and adding some sassy horns at the expense of the balafon, ngoni and kora. Both versions work well simply because it is such a powerful and joyous song.  
The cassette of "Sinikan" was released in West Africa at the beginning of March 2002 and the cd release followed in the summer. Bambino, who lives in a modest house with a charming little compound in a pleasant but slightly run-down area of the capital Conakry, was making his presence felt around the city in the days leading up to the football stadium launch concert.  

During a week of television interviews, incessant radio publicity, press conferences and meetings with various ministers he made sure that the general public could meet and greet the nation’s modest musical hero.  
Bambino is certainly a celebrity in Guinée and his entourage, which included the tv crew and delegation of journalists, was able to travel around the city freely without any delays at the frustrating military road-blocks that frequently appear on all major routes throughout the country.  


The enthusiasm from the public is warm, polite and sometimes vociferous without being hysterical. Inevitably a stroll through the intensely busy and vast Madina market caused serious commotion as the word quickly spread that Bambino was doing a walkabout.  

Bambino at the Stadium concert

The week-long album launch festivities peaked with a football stadium concert in which Bambino’s band performed songs from the album, along with his past hits, to an enthusiastic audience gathered in the Stade du 28 Septembre.  

Flautist & Chorists at the Stadium concert

Barry & Talibe at the Stadium concert


Bambino's group at stadium


The live band is a well rehearsed young unit that benefits from the presence of two veteran horn players, chef d’orchestre and saxophonist Maître Aliou Barry and trumpeter Maître Talibé Traore, both of whom have appeared in some of Guinée’s greatest bands of the sixties and seventies.


Bah & Bambino Djembe player from band


Bambino's group at stadium


Choirists from Bambino's during the stadium performance


Dancers at the stadium performance



Fans at the Stadium concert


The stadium performance was preceded by some playback presentations by leading contemporary figures of Guinéean music that included Sayon Kamissoko, who is also a choriste in Bambino’s live group, hip-hop group Degg-G Force 3, Les Etoiles de Boulbinet, and performing live together Kerfala Kante and Mory Djely "Deen" Kouyaté.


Sayon Kamissoko at stadium


Mariam Kouyate

Kerfala Kante

The eight day promotional program was aimed at giving Sinikan national publicity but also designed to give the visiting journalistic delegation an insight into the culture of Guinée. In a packed schedule we were able to attend events that featured Bambino as guest performer.  


Seydou Bah at the stadium concert

A festival, up-country in Kindia, included enthusiastic performances from youth dance troupes followed by a football tournament kicked-off by Bambino himself.  

Street procession at Fête des Dames

In the heart of Conakry itself a street "fête des dames" organised by Bambino’s wife and sisters allowed a couple of hundred women from local social groups, all resplendent in flowing boubous, to dance and celebrate in a glorious refined spectacle of joy.  

Fête des Dames - on the right Hadja Safiata Doumbouya


Bambino, a sister and stepmother at the Fête des Dames

Bambino performing at Fête des Dames

Raw praise singing led by the sensational Hadja Safiata Doumbouya was backed by an electric band who cranked out the "Guinée groove" through perfectly distorted amplifiers.  


 Fête des Dames


Finally we were treated to a Sunday afternoon and evening VIP feast beside the swimming pool of a luxury motel complex in a mangrove swamp north of the city. In this spectacular location an array of talent had been collected.


Bambino performing at The Mangrove



Bambino and El Hadj Djely Sory Koyate at The Mangrove

Young contemporary musicians and dancers and established traditional musicians performed through a scorching afternoon and into the evening.  

Kante & Kouyate Mory Djely Kouyate
Here we were able to appreciate Bambino’s guest performance with the National Instrumental Ensemble directed by Kemo Kouyaté, the legendary chef d’orchestre of Miriam Makeba’s Guinean Quintet.  


National Ensemble



Bambino (center) with National Ensemble


The main feature of the National ensemble are the three balafons led by El Hadj Djely Sory Kouyaté, born in 1918, cousin of the late national vocal treasure Sory Kandia Kouyaté, and acknowledged to be the leading instrumentalist of the country.


El Hadj Djely Sory Kouyate

All in all a spectacular series of performances and events built around the launch of the new release from Guinée’s leading light of contemporary music.  


National Ensemble

Sinikan is a wonderful disc and a strong contender for one of the albums of the year. In fact I wouldn’t hesitate to nominate it as the West African disc of the year were it not for the perverse turn of coincidence that caused Mali’s Salif Keita to release what is probably his greatest album, Moffou, at about the same time as Bambino was launching the cassette of Sinikan at home in Guinée. I got to hear a pre-release copy of Moffou along with François Breant, the arranger of Sinikan, who had also worked on Keita’s masterpiece Soro. We both agreed that Salif’s Moffou is absolutely stunning. I was happy to reassure Beant that I consider Sinikan to be just as good and certainly very different stylistically. A few months later the "World Music Charts – Europe" showed Sinikan and Moffou in first and second place respectively.  
Although Sekouba Bambino is Guinée’s best loved artist there is a wealth of music still being performed throughout the country and in particular in the capital Conakry. Whilst the music scene may not be buzzing like it did in the mid-eighties when there were four or five live bands playing on virtually any evening, the nation is still alive with musicians. Only a couple of the old bars are still in existence (La Paillote and Bembeya) and major live concerts from established bands are quite rare. Despite this the new young musicians wish to follow Bambino’s lead and develop their music using modern technology and influences whilst retaining a rich cultural heritage. This is why many musical ensembles still retain the use of traditional instrumentation like the Peulh pastoral flute (a traditional wooden flute), bolon (a strung gourd bass), ngoni (lute) and djembe and doundoum percussion. This traditional instrumentation is frequently fused to electric guitars, horn sections and keyboards to produce a powerful modern music that retains an ancient cultural authenticity.  
Some Guinean artists are well known internationally like Mory Kanté and Oumou Dioubate. Her female Manding-Paris fusion has succeeded, resulting in frequent international performances including the celebrated "Griot Groove" concerts when Bambino, Oumou and Malienne superstar Kandia Kouyate performed together with an all-star lineup. Male singers like Kerfala Kante, Fode Kouyate, Mory Djely Kouyaté, Baba Djan, Amadou Sodia, Lassou Doumbouya, Sekouba Fatako, Sambaly Diabaté, Keita Lancinet, Amadou Barry and Fode Baro are all first rate performers very much in the same "Kassa" style that Bambino plays. Female singers like Néné Gale Bah "Lega", Sona Tata Condé, Maï Kouyate, Tiranké Sidibé, Sayon Koulako Kamissoko, Maciré Sylla, Sabré Soumano, Sayon Camara and Zenab Kouyaté are also exceptionally talented and worthy of attention.  
Then there is a whole series of artists who have become better known internationally as a result of their musical reputation and the distribution of their recordings outside of the West African community. Sona Diabate, Mama Diabate, Les Soeurs Diabate, Les Amazones de Guinée, Kanté Manfila, Papa Diabaté, Les African Virtuoses, Kaloum Star, Sekou "Bembeya" Diabate, Djanka Diabate, Mama Keita, Djessou Mory Kanté, Les Leaders de la Guinée, Les Ballets Africains, Alpha Yaya Diallo and Momo "Wandel" Soumah have all received worthy acclaim in the global music press.  

There are new young acts that are ready to explode internationally given half a chance. Singing duo Les Soeurs Barrysettes play a rootsy pop style that includes spectacular dance routines. Their cassette, recorded in Abidjan, has an attractive pop style but there are strong traditional elements like sudden stabs of Peulh flute and guitar runs that replicate balafon melodies.

Singing duo Les Soeurs Barrysettes



Singing duo Les Soeurs Barrysettes performing

Perhaps most interesting of all the new young musicians are two Conakry based groups who are performing a modern variation of a traditional vocal/percussion style of music. Both Les Espoirs de Coronthie and Les Etoiles de Boulbinet have released audio cassettes of their hypnotic music.  
In addition to the wealth of new recordings from Guinée it is now an ideal time to catch up on the glory days of the country’s musical heritage. The large and wonderfully compelling back-catalog of the remarkable Syliphone label is gradually being re-released on cd. Seminal recordings by Bembeya Jazz, Orchestre de la Paillotte, Jardin de Guinée, Horoya Band, Balla et ses Balladins, Sory Kandia Kouyaté and Miriam Makeba’s Guinean Quintet are essential purchases. In addition to that some exquisite compilations capture the equally impressive groups like Keletigui et ses Tambourinis, Boiro Band, Camayenne Sofa, and les Nimba de N’Zerekore.

La Paillotte Plus Nightclub


Creative, energetic street art

Street scene


Whatever your stylistic preference may be in African music, be it electric Latin influenced horn and guitar rumba, or acoustic West African traditional roots, it is important that you discover the music of Guinée. It is highly likely that within the wealth of culturally rich and diverse music that has been recorded in the last fifty years there will be plenty to entertain and much that will surprise and move you.


Fanta my guide


Thanks to the family and staff of Ibrahima and Madame Tapa Syllart, CDS and Mass Production, Sono/Next Music, Sekouba Bambino Diabaté and his family and staff, François Breant, and Fanta Traoré and family.


Contact Martin Sinnock at or write to PO Box 406, Croydon CR9 1XR, England.