Artist Profiles: Bembeya Jazz

Bembeya Jazz - Photo by René Goiffon
Bembeya Jazz – Photo by René Goiffon

Guinea’s Bembeya Jazz was formed in 1961, at a time and place when Afro-Cuban music resonated and possibly became the bridge between traditional music and modern instrumentation.

In the mid-’60s, Bembeya Jazz, which takes its name from the river that runs through their remote hometown of Beyla, was certified as a national band by Guinea’s first president Sekou Toure. The band moved to the capital, Conakry, where they performed as many as six nights each week and felt pressure to develop the hottest spine-tingling sounds. From this era emerged their signature four-guitar section, the introduction of Hawaiian slide guitar, and stunning stage performances.

Bembeya’s creative director Aboubacar Demba Camara was killed in a tragic car crash in 1973. The band was eventually able to re-group and right before the 1984 death of President Sekou Toure, he denationalized Bembeya (their first opportunity to operate internationally) and gave them their own nightclub.

But the 1980s saw a significant economic decline in Guinea and most of the band members had to look outside of the Guinean music scene for their primary livelihood. “The band was not broken up,” says lead guitarist Sekou ‘Diamond Fingers’ Diabate. “But in life, there are ups and downs, good moments and bad moments. So you wait. We were waiting.”

In 2003 Bembeya released its first recording in fourteen years. The band’s 2003 line-up included four members that hail from the group’s formative years, decades ago. Sekou ‘Diamond Fingers’ Diabate has not let up with his fiery guitar embellishments and entertaining stage antics. The high tenor voice of Salifou Kaba joins Dore Clement on tenor sax, Mohamed Kaba on trumpet, and Conde Mory Mangala on drums; all veterans of the dozen-member outfit.

In 2007 Bembeya Jazz appeared in the documentary film Sur les traces du Bembeya Jazz.

Partial Discography:

Sabu (Sonodisc, 1988)

Wà kélè (Sonodisc, 1989)

Regard sur le passé (Mélodie, 1990)

Telegramme/Yekeke (Best of) (Sonodisc, 1993)

Regard Sur Le Passe (Syliphone/Syllart, 1999)

10 Ans de Succes (Syliphone/Sylla, 1999)

Authenticite 73 / Parade Africaine (Syliphone/Syllart, 2000)

Bembeya Jazz (Guinea)

Hommage a Demba Camara (Syllart, 2000)

Defi & Continuite (Syliphone/Syllart, 2000)

Bembeya (Marabi, 2002)

The Syliphone Years: Hits and Rare Recordings (Sterns STCD3029-30, 2004)

African Classics: Bembeya Jazz (Sheer Sound, 2006)

The Syliphone years – Hits and rare recordings (Sterns STCD 3029-30, 2007)

Belle Epoque, Volume 1 (Syllart 986, 2011)

Volume 2 – Les années 80 (Syllart 987, 2012)

Author: Angel Romero

Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music and progressive music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music and electronic music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World, Lektronic Soundscapes, and Mindchild Records. Angel is currently based in Durham, North Carolina.

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