Guinea's Diabate Brothers: Virtuoso Guitarists Unplugged

Chris May By

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African Virtuoses
African Virtuoses: The Classic Guinean Guitar Group

This enchanting and exquisitely beautiful album, originally released in 1983, features four of the top electric guitarists of the pre-world music "golden years" of west African music, performing unplugged. Fragrant, lyrical and reviving, a ripe mango of aural pleasure, it is the perfect soundtrack to a sunny summer afternoon. It is also a timely companion to the recently released Authenticite: The Syliphone Years (Sterns, 2007), which features some of the same players in their more familiar electric settings.

The African Virtuoses (sometimes known as Les Virtuoses Diabate or Les Freres Diabate) were formed in the mid-1970s by three brothers from Guinea's guitar playing Diabate dynasty—Abdoulaye, Sire and Sekou "Le Docteur." A fourth, elder brother, Papa (born 1936), who is widely credited with inspiring the first generation of Guinean electric guitarists, emerging in the 1960s, is heard on a bonus track, the closing "Solo Virtuose," a 17-minute duet with Sekou recorded in 1970.

Most of the tracks are re-arrangements of popular Guinean tunes of the era, including hits by Bembaya Jazz National, which are themselves based on traditional folk songs and dances. Many of these tunes were first played on the 21-string kora (harp), and the lead guitarists frequently echo the kora's signature, tumbling, cascades of notes (while the kora itself is featured on one track). Guinean balafon (xylophone) music, with its percussive pedal point riffs, is referenced by the supporting guitarists.

Woven inextricably into the music too are influences from further afield, including Cuban rumba, a little Spanish flamenco and, intriguingly and wonderfully, the Gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt, a benign and fortuitous legacy of Guinea's French colonial years. Abdoulaye shows the most marked Reinhardt influence and his work on "Wouloukoro" and "Dembati Galant," reinterpretations of two Bembaya classics, contains passages of pure Gypsy jazz, morphing seamlessly, and breathtakingly, in and out of the Guinean tradition.

A second bonus track, "N'fa," captures another moment of early African Virtuoses history, from the band's first album, La Nouvelle Mariee (Syliphone, circa 1975). Sekou, by this time one of Guinea's most celebrated electric guitarists—fine examples of his work with the Balladins band are included on Authenticité—is still to be heard on the six-string instrument, before his move to the bass for the 1983 album. The only newly composed tune on the disc, "N'fa" (My Father), was written by Sire and dedicated to the Diabate patriarch.

There simply isn't a moment on this lovely album which isn't magical and transporting. Every track is a delight, but if I had to take one only to a desert island it would have to be "Toubaka." A tune widely recorded in west Africa, including a vocal version by Salif Keita with Les Ambassadeurs, it features a chord progression which somehow manages to sound simultaneously surprising and Lord-have-mercy inevitable, and includes a vibrant guitar dialogue between Abdoulaye and Sekou Kouyate.

As with all the releases in Sterns' ongoing reissue program, African Virtuoses comes with an authoritative background booklet, including reproductions of the original sleeves—check the hairstyle of the woman on the cover of Discotheque 70 (Syliphone, 1970), on which "Solo Virtuose" was originally released, and fall in love—and an evocative Diabate family photograph taken in 1994, of Sire, Sekou and Papa with their mother, Hadja Manamba Camera, regally clothed in gold and crimson robes amongst her more casually attired sons.

Tracks: Nanibali; Kankan Diarabi; Wouloukoro; Hafia; Dembati Galant; Madame Nana; Toubaka; N'fa; Ballade Sur La Lagune; Solo Virtuose.

Personnel: Tracks 1-7, 9: Abdoulaye Diabate: guitar; Sekou Kouyate: guitar, kora; Honomou Jerome Claver: guitar; Sekou "Le Docteur" Diabate: bass; Fassou Habass: percussion; Pierre Houon: congas. Track 8: Sekou "Le Docteur" Diabate: guitar; Abdoulaye Diabate: guitar; Sire Diabate: guitar; unidentified: bass. Track 10: Papa Diabate: lead guitar; Sekou "Le Docteur" Diabate: guitar.

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