Bembeya Jazz The Syliphone Years Review

Released 2004.  

BBC Review

'..its hard to fault this superlative and long overdue re-issue, which commemorates a...

Jon Lusk 2004

The music made in Guinea during the first two decades after independence from France in 1958 represents some of the most sublime and influential that any West African nation has ever produced. Backed by Sékou Touré's socialist government, groups from every region of the country were encouraged to modernise their ancient musical traditions and were given the financial assistance to do so. And of all the musical riches that this policy unearthed, those of Bembeya Jazz National were the finest.

If you weren't quite convinced by the band's 2002 comeback album Bembeya, and the recent Guitar Fö from their mighty guitarist Sékou Diabaté, this 2-CD compilation really shows what all the fuss was about. It's a thorough selection of their best work for the national Syliphone label, which began releasing local music in the mid 1960s. For those already familiar with compilations like Mémoire de Aboubacar Demba Camara -at least half of which is reproduced here -the first disc, which includes many early singles previously unavailable on CD, will be a revelation.

Highlights? Pretty much the whole damn thing, though it depends on your mood, such is the variety of styles they experimented with. All the ingredients that made their music so wonderful are there on their first single "République Guinée"; the trademark off-key brass section, grooving percussion, Sékou Diabaté's exquisite guitar and the distinctively savoury vocals of Demba Camara. Apart from updating the griot songs of their largely Maninka heritage, the band revelled in outside influences.

Titles like "Sabor de Guajira", "Montuno de la Sierra" and the rumba-flavoured gem "Dagna" illustrate the passion for Cuban music which they shared with many West African musicians of their generation. Likewise, "Mami Wata" is an affectionate nod to Ghanaian highlife, and "Sou" takes a short trip to Cape Verde. The compilation brings us as far as 1976, three years after the death of Demba Camara, by which time their sound was beginning to take on a soukous flavour.

Those who are fussy about sound quality should perhaps be warned that some of the recordings are copied from vinyl rather than the original master tapes, but also that this music is about ambience, not accuracy. The only major omission is anything from the epic Regard sur le Passé, probably because as Graeme Counsel's excellent sleevenotes explain it consists of a single song spread over two sides of vinyl, and is best heard in its entirety. Otherwise, its hard to fault this superlative and long overdue re-issue, which commemorates a truly golden era in African music. If the brooding, majestic grace of Ballake doesn't give you goosebumps, you should probably see a doctor soon.

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