Bembeya Jazz National Biography

This group was formed in Beyla, Guinea, in 1961, under the patronage of President Sekou Toure, who was keen to foster indigenous musical expression, then under threat from the wholesale importation of western rock and soul. Bembeya Jazz arguably made the biggest contribution to the thriving state of local, traditionally based dance music in Guinea, establishing themselves as one of the most popular and respected bands in West Africa, seemingly unaffected by passing trends and growing Western influence.

In 1966, the group was appointed Guinea’s national band - a position not entirely unconnected to their penchant for such lyrics as ‘Ahmed Sekou Toure, you are honest, you are good, you are the person Guinea needs.’ However, the honour was nonetheless wholly deserved: Bembeya presented dance music steeped in authentic Guinean folk culture, and employed a line-up that placed traditional instruments such as the kora (harp), balafon (xylophone) and tam-tam (drum) in the frontline, alongside western imports such as guitars, reeds and brass. Bembeya’s first hit, ‘Ballake’, praised a celebrated Guinean freedom fighter from colonial times. From there, they went on to become one of Africa’s greatest and most influential bands. Their reputation rested on musical excellence, their mix of roots instrumentation, hypnotic folk-informed guitar styles and dazzling horn arrangements, and partly on their own personalities. Vocalist Aboubacar Demba Camara established himself as one of the great African singers, while guitarist Sekou Diabeté, a flamboyant showman, forged an entirely original and much-imitated solo style. Camara’s death in a car crash in 1973 seemed to mark the end of the band, but after a short period of reorganization, they returned to the scene with no less than three new singers, the Trio Ambiance from Tazouka, and carried on their historic role. In 1977, following an appearance at the Festac pan-African cultural Olympics in Lagos, Nigeria, Diabeté was voted ‘The Hendrix of Africa’.

For much of Sekou Toure’s presidency, Guinea remained closed to the west. Links with Communist countries were encouraged, and in the 60s Bembeya played in Cuba, and in the early 70s in Moscow. After Toure’s death in 1984, the band turned its attention to Europe, and at the end of that year played a gig at London’s Africa Centre. This was followed by the release of several albums recorded in Paris, where for the first time the studio production matched the quality of the band’s music. In 1985, Diabeté released the towering solo album Diamond Fingers, supported by musicians from the band. Bembeya Jazz finally disbanded in 1991, with various members going on to work on solo projects. They reunited in the new millennium to record the excellent Bembeya.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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