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Africa Members of Bembeya Jazz nominated for Africa category

Bembeya Jazz (Guinea)

Song : Bembeya
Album : Bembeya (Marabi, France)

Elsewhere in BBCi : Album Review

Listen to all the music from their recent London Jazz Festival gig.
Listen to a recent World Routes interview with record label, Marabi.

If there's any such thing as a "golden age" in the music of a nation, then the 1960s and 1970s were that time for the West African state of Guinea. Under the forceful unifying leadership of President Sekou Touré, performing artists were subsidised and encouraged to take pride in their local folkloric roots and to compete with each other. The band that eventually came to be called Bembeya Jazz National, after winning first place at one of Touré's biennial arts festivals, first came together in 1961 just a year after his reforms began.

Bembeya Jazz combined the best of their Manding heritage with an Africanized jazz sensibility and a strong affection for Afro-Cuban music to create some of the most sublime big band music ever. With an agreeably off key brass section, sweet and sour harmony vocals and a guitar trio led by the breathtakingly fluid improvisations of Sekou "Diamond Fingers" Diabaté, they became Guinea's best loved orchestra during the optimistic years following independence.

Disaster struck in 1973 when they lost their star vocalist Aboubacar Demba Camara in a car crash. The band sound just fine on the album they made in tribute to him shortly afterwards, and continued to thrill audiences right through the seventies. But economic decline and the death of Touré - by then, a fully fledged dictator - in 1984 was mirrored by a loss of the magic in their music; they made their last lacklustre recording in 1988. By the end of the 1990s, Bembeya Jazz had been reduced to sporadic live appearances (as opposed to six nights a week in their heyday) and were barely making a living from music. However, they never split up completely...

Enter Christian Mousset, founder of French world music label Indigo and Artistic Director of the Musiques Metisses festival in Angoulême, where Bembeya Jazz made a stunning come-back in May, 2001. He subsequently oversaw the production of their first album in 14 years for his new label Marabi.

Much like the new recording by Orchestra Baobab, that other legendary West African outfit who have recently been given a new lease of life, Bembeya showcases new versions of old songs from their illustrious past. And like Baobab, many of the original members are still with the group, successfully recapturing their lush intoxicating grooves. Most significantly, they still feature the guitar genius of Sekou "Diamond Fingers" Diabaté, who sums up the rise in their fortunes in succinct philosophical terms: 'In life there are ups and downs, good and bad moments. So you wait. We were waiting.'

Jon Lusk 2002

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