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African Legends

Bembeya Jazz

By Bruce Miller
Published November 17, 2006

During their heyday in the early ’70s, Bembeya Jazz was Guinea’s, and perhaps Africa’s, hottest band.

While Guinea’s first president, Sekou Traore—elected in 1958 after its citizens voted overwhelming to oust French ruler Charles De Gaulle—was accountable for untold imprisonment and worse for a large percentage of his country’s population, he was also responsible for forcibly directing Guinean musicians away from French colonial marches and back toward their roots. The result was countless orchestras, often rooted in Cuba but spiced with grooves snatched from the country’s local balafon and kora sounds.

By the late ’60s and early ’70s, thanks to the great Syliphone record label, ensembles such as the Super Boiro Band, Horoya Band and Kaloum Star spit out deep West African electric music that had absolutely nothing to do with the Afro-funk churning from its Anglophone neighbors’ dance floors.

Hottest of all was Bembeya Jazz, featuring the incomparable guitar of Sekou “Diamond Fingers” Diabate. No doubt, any electric guitar nut steeped in the Western stars of ’70s rock would reconsider his heroes’ stature after a single earful of Diabate’s melodic superiority. In fact, during their heyday in the early ’70s, before the tragic death of vocalist Aboubacar Demba Camara, this was Guinea’s, and perhaps Africa’s, hottest band.

In general, the music Syliphone recorded had a depth and a clearly “Guinean” sound that connected the bands. Rhythm sections pinned down percolating grooves, while trumpets held on to that minor key fanfare long ago borrowed from old Cuban records. The result was a music that is somehow more mind-boggling in its aftermath than it was in its prime. Bembeya survived Camara’s death as well as the mid-’80s collapse of Syliphone.

While they saw little action in the '90s, by 2002 the original members had begun playing again. Their comeback CD of that year, simply titled Bembeya, proved that the legacy was continuing unscathed.

Recommended Recordings

Bembeya Jazz National: The Syliphone Years (Stern’s Africa)
Bembeya (World Village)
Guitar Fo (by Sekou Bembeya Diabate) (Discorama/Harmonia Mundi)