Bembeya Jazz National & Tabu Ley: Masterpieces From The Guinean And Congolese Belle Epoques

Chris May By

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An irony of post-1980s world music is that it has sustained an interest in the earlier, belle epoque musical styles of post-colonial Africa, elements of which it reshaped and recalibrated for a global audience—not necessarily to either their detriment or advantage, but whose evolution it nonetheless influenced and accelerated. Now more than ever, the belle epoque's early-1960s through mid-1970s archives are being opened up, catalogued, and restored to the public domain.

A newly released pair of double-disc compilations showcase two deservingly immortal bands of the period. The Syliphone Years: Hits & Rare Recordings tracks Guinea's Bembeya Jazz National through their 1967-77 glory days. The Voice Of Lightness does the same for Tabu Ley (aka Rochereau), with his band African Fiesta a founding father of Congolese rumba, 1961-77.

Bembeya Jazz National
The Syliphone Years: Hits & Rare Recordings

Along with Horoya Band National, Balla Et Ses Balladins and Keletigui Et Ses Tambourinis, Bembeya Jazz National was one of the bands which led the renaissance of tradition-based music in Guinea following independence in 1958. All four groups enjoyed periods of spectacular artistry and innovation, and many listeners regard Bembeya as the greatest of them all. They are certainly emblematic of their era.

Bembeya's line-up included some of Guinea's most gifted and singular musicians. Pre-eminent amongst these was lead guitarist Sekou "Diamond Fingers" Diabate, whose playing was formed around the melodic and rhythmic codifications of traditional kora (harp) and balafon (xylophone) music, but whose serpentine, reverb-heavy runs owe almost as much, in texture at least, to rock 'n' rollers like Duane Eddy or the Ventures. Vocalist Aboubacar Demba Camara, a virtuoso steeped in griot lore, was another mesmerising presence. Diabate and Camara defined Bembeya's classic-era sound, assisted by a flamboyant horn section led by trumpeters Mohamed Kaba and Sekou "Le Growl" Camara.

Bembeya and its brother bands—a sister outfit, Les Amazones De Guinée, was formed at around the same time as Bembeya, in 1961—were fostered and supported with subsidy provided by independent Guinea's founding President, Sekou Toure's authenticité policy. The policy was designed to restore the country's cultural self-respect by elevating indigenous music over the imported European styles of the French colonial era. Authenticite is discussed in more detail in a review of Authenticite: The Syliphone Years (Sterns, 2007).

Bembeya began life in the small town of Beyla, as Orchestre De Beyla, with most of its key instrumentalists amongst the founding line-up. In 1962, Demba Camara and second vocalist Salifou Kaba were added and the band was renamed Bembeya Jazz. In 1966, as Bembeya Jazz National, it became the first regional band to be recognised as an "orchestre nationaux" under the authenticité program, and relocated to Guinea's capital, Conakry.

A double-disc compilation with a playing time of some two-and-a-half, consistently top drawer hours, The Syliphone Years: Hits & Rare Recordings, a new edition of an earlier collection, chronicles Bembeya during its 1967-77 creative peak. CD1 includes three tracks from the band's debut album, Bembeya Jazz National (Syliphone, 1967), but is mostly composed of 45rpm singles. CD2 samples seven albums recorded 1968-77.

While the album tracks are amongst the highpoints in the Bembeya canon, it is the 12 singles tracks—a mixture of A sides and B sides recorded 1969-73—which many will regard as the muthalode. The tracks chart Bembeya's progress from a young band still overtly informed by Cuban music (a massive influence throughout west and central Africa at the time) to one foregrounding a predominantly Guinean-informed music, up until the premature death of Demba Camara, in a car crash, in 1973.

Even in relatively full-on Cuban mode, on the earlier singles, Bembeya conjure powerful magic—"Sabor De Guajira," from 1969, features a heart-stoppingly beautiful solo from Diabate, amongst his very finest. But for me, the jewel in CD1's crown is "Super Tentemba," an atmospheric live recording from 1973, totalling 14 minutes and originally released over both sides of a single. There are stirring solos from trumpeter Sekou Camara and tenor saxophonist Clement Dorego, the start of each greeted by almost tangible excitement amongst the audience, and an extended masterpiece from Diabate, equal parts visceral and lyrical, its most dramatic moments punctuated by roars of ecstatic approval. Close your eyes and it feels like you're there.

Demba Camara excels on "Super Tentemba," towards the end marsalling what sounds like a vast crowd into a disciplined call and response section, but his greatest moments may come on CD2's "Ballake," from Memoire De Aboubacar Demba Camara (Syliphone, 1974). The song was written as a tribute to a young freedom fighter shot during the anti-colonialist struggle, and tells the story of his fiancé's suicide following his death. Camara's thoughtful and nuanced delivery, moving between passages of quiet, chanson-like intimacy and impassioned, warrior-like emotion, is enthralling, eloquent-beyond-words and powerfully affecting.

The shock of Camara's death was so severe that Guinea went into national mourning and Bembeya disbanded for three years. The group reformed in 1976, with two new vocalists, Moussa Toure and Mory Kouyate, joining surviving singer Salifou Kaba. Even without Camara, Bembeya retained much of its potency, its style now absorbing the soukous music coming out of Congo, and the band made two well-received albums in 1976 and 1977, selections from which comprise the last few tracks on the second disc. Inactive from 1988, Bembeya reformed with seven of the classic-era members (including Sekou Diabate) fourteen years later, releasing Bembeya (Marabi, 2002).

Next up in the Authenticite series, due later this year, are two more double-disc compilations, from Keletigui Et Ses Tambourinis and Balla Et Ses Balladins. A feast is upon us.

Rochereau/Tabu Ley
The Voice Of Lightness

Another vibrant collection from African music's post-colonial, pre-world music belle epoque, The Voice Of Lightness is a double-disc compilation which traces the career of the singer, songwriter and bandleader Tabu Ley (aka Rochereau), a founding father of Congolese rumba, during his 1961-77 heyday. Twenty-nine tracks selected from Ley's prodigious discography (he has recorded literally hundreds of albums), follow him from his professional debut singing harmony in Joseph "Kalle" Kabasele's Orchestre African Jazz, through his own African Fiesta and Afrisa International bands.

Congolese rumba in the 1960s and 1970s was dominated by two bandleaders—Ley and the guitarist and songwriter Franco, leader of T.P.O.K. Jazz. The two men existed in a state of permament, if more or less friendly rivalry. Ley's sophisticated, metropolitan style—melodic, sweet-voiced balladry delivered by his own supple high-tenor over prettily arranged close harmony vocals—appealed particularly to the aspirational middle class which emerged following independence in 1960. Franco's rougher-edged approach perhaps carried more weight amongst the urban poor and working class. But the distinction was far from clear cut, and much more united the two men's styles than divided them.

At the core of both African Fiesta/Afrisa and T.P.O.K. Jazz were electric guitars, played in a fashion derived from traditional Congolese likembe (thumb piano) music. The intricately interweaving lines of likembe choirs were replicated, most typically, by a three-piece guitar section, made up of lead, mi-compose (contrapuntal) and rhythm players. In T.P.O.K. Jazz it was Franco himself, "The Sorcerer Of The Guitar," who took the lead. In African Fiesta it was Nicolas "Docteur Nico" Kasanda and, after he left to set up his own band, Guvano Vangu. Nico's gorgeous lyricism and shimmering sound, preserved in Vangu's playing, were at the heart of Ley's music. Relaxed but insistent dance rhythms, taken from Cuban rumba, cha-cha-cha and mambo, blended with traditional Congolese folk rhythms and played on congas, shakers and scrapers, plus colourific horn sections (and occasional solos), completed the instrumental picture.

Even with a two-and-a-half hour playing time, The Voice Of Lightness can include only a small fraction of Ley's prolific output of the 1960s and 1970s, but it does so with imagination and great taste, mixing well-known hits with more obscure treasures, and including all Ley's bands of the period—African Fiesta (1963-65), African Fiesta '66 (1966), African Fiesta International (1967-71), Afrisa International (1972-78) and Onaza (1977).

Along the way, the album touches on one of the stylistic tributaries which differentiated Ley's songwriting from Franco's. In his lyrics, Franco would unfailingly take the man's side when discussing domestic disputes, love troubles or other examples of gender friction. Ley, by contrast, took the woman's side. (In the 1980s, with his protege, the female singer Mbilia Bel, Ley brought this unusual writing stance centrestage). CD2's "Mongali," a tale of unrequited love from 1972, is a daring and perfectly realised example of Ley's approach. Stripping Afrisa International down to an acoustic quartet, he tells the put-upon woman's story in the first person, not an easy thing for a male singer convincingly to pull off. Rippling quietly away under Ley's vocals, the acoustic guitars are entrancingly beautiful.

Similarly magical moments, vocal and instrumental, recur throughout The Voice Of Lightness. As with Bembeya's Hits & Rare Recordings, the package includes an authoritative and well-illustrated, 44-page background booklet. Both albums are, if I haven't made it clear, highly recommended.

Tracks and Personnel

The Syliphone Years: Hits & Rare Recordings

Tracks: CD1: Republique Guinee; Sabor De Guajira; Armee Guineenne; Guantanamera-seyni; Dembaty Galant; Air Guinee; Guinee Hety Horemoun; Montuno De La Sierra; Waraba; Dagna; Doni Doni; Camera Mousso; Super Tentamba; Mami Wati; Alalake. CD2: Beyla; Fatoumata; Moussogbe; Sou; N'gamokoro; Ballake; Mussofing; Dya Dya; Sina Mousso; N'temenna; Telephone; Petit Sekou.

Personnel: Aboubacar Demba Camara: lead vocals (CD1, CD2 1-6); Salifou Kaba: vocals, lead vocals (CD2 7-12), maracas; Moussa Toure, Mory Kouyate: lead vocals (CD2 7-12); Sekou "Diamond Fingers" Diabate: lead guitar; Mamadou "Vieux" Camara: rhythm guitar; Sekou "Le Growl" Camara, Mohamed "Achken" Kaba: trumpet; Clement Dorego: soprano and tenor saxophone; Bangaly "Gros Bois" Traore: tenor saxophone; Hamidou Dianoune: bass, chef d'orchestre; Mory "Mangala" Conde: drums; Siaka Diabate: congas.

The Voice Of Lightness

Tracks: CD1: Kelya; K.J.; Succes African Jazz; Pesa Le Tout; Nalembi Nalembi; N'Daya Paradis; Tabalissimo; Mama Ida; Mireille Mwana; Mokolo Nakokufa; Savon Omo; Lily Mwana Ya Quartier; Kasala; Monano; Ana Mokoy; Mokitani Ya Wendo; Christine; Songo+Songo=Songi-Songi. CD2: Aon Aon; Kimakango Mpe Libala; Mongali; Omanga; Nzale; Kaful Mayay; Karibou Ya Binfou; Mbanda Nayei; Adeito (Pts. 1 & 2); Yombe; Likambo Ya Mokanda.

Personnel: CD1: Tracks 1-3: Orchestre African Jazz: Joseph "Kalle" Kabasale: voice, percussion; Roger Izeidi: voice, percussion; Pascal "Rochereau" Tabou: voice; Tino Baroza: guitar; Charles "Dechaud" Mwemba: guitar; Nicolas Kasanda: guitar; Dominique "Willy" Kuntima: trumpet; Edouard "Edo Clari" Lutula: clarinet, saxophone; Andre Menga: saxophone; Manu Dibango: saxophone; Albert Taumani: double bass; Antoine "Depuissant" Kaya: congas. Tracks 4-9: African Fiesta: Pascal "Rochereau" Tabou: voice; Roger Izeidi: voice, percussion; Kwamy Munsi: voice; Paul Mizele: voice; Nicolas Kasanda: guitar; Dechaud Mwamba: guitar; Faugus Izeidi: guitar; Joseph Mwena: bass; Willy Kuntima: trumpet; Jeef Mingeidi: trumpet; Depuissant Kaya: congas. Tracks 10-12: African Fiesta '66: Rocherau: voice; Roger Izeidi: voice, percussion; Sam Mangwana: voice, percussion; Rene Kare Kassanda: voice; Jean-Paul "Guvano" Vango: guitar; Faugus Izeidi: guitar; Johnny Bokasa: guitar; Joseph Mwena: bass; Willy Kuntima: trumpet; Armand-Louis Samu Bakula: saxophone; Henri "Fredos" Dongala: percussion. Tracks 13-18: African Fiesta National: Rochereau: voice; Roger Izeidi: voice, percussion; Sam Mangwana: voice, percussion; Opetun "Pepe" Ndombe: voice; Kare Kasanda: voice; Guvano Vangu: guitar; Pierre Attei Mbumba: guitar; Johnny Bokasa: guitar; Denis Lokassa Kasia: guitar; Faugus Izeidi: guitar; Joseph Mwena: bass; Willy Kuntima: trumpet; Alphonse Biolo: trumpet; Samu Bakula: saxophone; Empompo "Deyesse" Loway: saxophone; Fredos Dongala: percussion; Seskain Molenga: drums. CD2: Tracks 1-8: Afrisa International: Tabu Ley (Rochereau): voice; Augustin "Hennesy" Malao: voice; Sam Mangwana: voice; Kare Kasanda: voice; Muazik Nzuzi: voice; "Michelino" Mavatiku Visi: guitar; "Dizzy" Mandjeku Lengo: guitar; Lokassa ""Ya Mbongo" Kasia: guitar; Paul "Bopol" Mansiamina: guitar; Dino Vangu: guitar; "Philo" Kola Ntalulu: bass; Jean Pierre Nzenze: trumpet; Alpohonse Biolo: trumpet; Modera Mekanisi: saxophone; Empompo Loway: saxophone; Kimuanga Kawongolo: saxophone; Armando Ama: congas; Seskian Molenga: drums; Kanyama "Ringo" Moya Lotula: drums. Tracks 9-11: Onaza: Tabu Ley: voice; Hennesy Malao: voice; Muazik Nzuzi: voice; Nyoka Longo: voice; Mbuta Mashakado: voice; Likinga Redo: voice; Dizzy Mandjeku: guitar; Lokassa Ya Mbongo: guitar; Dino Vangu: guitar; Manuaku Waku: guitar; Philo Kola: bass; Jean Pierre Nzenze: trumpet; Alphonse Biolo: trumpet; Modero Mekanisi: saxophone, master of ceremonies; Kimuanga Kawongolo: saxophone; Armanda Ama: congas; Seskian Molenga: drums.

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