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Salif Keita, Mory Kante, Bembeya Jazz: Africa for the Africans


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The 1960s and 1970s are often referred to as the "golden years" of African music. As more and more African countries freed themselves from colonialism, a wave of artists emerged who celebrated their own cultural legacies rather than those validated by their erstwhile European rulers. This post-colonial generation played roots-based styles employing traditional instruments and African-language lyrics, but also embraced advances in Western technology—electric guitars and fit-for-purpose recording studios in particular.

The music was the best of both worlds and, creatively speaking, the 1960s and 1970s were indeed golden years. With hindsight, they were also special for another reason—they came before the birth of world music in the mid-1980s. Prior to the arrival of a global audience, African artists made music intended purely for African ears. But as sales figures rose in Europe and America, many artists began to tailor their music accordingly. The results were not necessarily "worse" or "better," or even "less African," than what came before, but they were different.

Two recent double-CD releases preserve some of the most pioneering and long unavailable West African electric music of the post-colonial, pre-world music era. Authenticite: The Syliphone Years is a various artists compilation of tracks recorded in Guinea 1965-80. Rail Band 1: Soundiata is a collection of 1969-82 tracks by Mali's Rail Band, half of them featuring the band's celebrated early vocalists, Salif Keita and Mory Kante.

Various Artists
Authenticite: The Syliphone Years

When Guinea became independent in 1958, most of the musicians working in its capital, Conakry's top nightclubs and hotels were Europeans, playing French and American show tunes and dance music. Guinean musicians were found lower down the economic ladder, in neighbourhood dancehalls, but they too played a repertoire mainly made up of waltzes, foxtrots and Latin American dance tunes. (The names of the leading Guinean bands—La Douce Parisette, L'Africana Swing Band, Le Harlem Jazz Band and Les Joviales Symphonies—speak for themselves).

A year-zero thinker before his time, independent Guinea's founding President, Sekou Toure, was a Mao-style socialist who applied his command-economy beliefs to the arts as well as to trade and agriculture. Within months of achieving power, Toure's Ministry of Culture disbanded all European-style bands in the country and directed their musicians to "return to authentic African rhythms and tunes."

The policy was called "authenticite" and Toure backed it up with state sponsorship of newly formed national and regional bands, together with regular festivals at which the regional bands competed for national status. At its peak, the state supported seven national bands—including Bembeya Jazz National, the Horoya Band, Keletigui Et Ses Tambourins and Balla Et Ses Balladins, all represented on Authenticite: The Syliphone Years—and thirty regional bands, of which about half are also featured. All Guinean bands recorded at the Voix De La Revolution studio in Conakry, and the tracks were released on the national record label, Syliphone, generally on multiple-artist albums or 45rpm singles.

Authenticite notwithstanding, the music played by the national and regional bands included some non-Guinean elements. Ghanaian highlife was a signifcant influence—E.T. Mensah And His Tempos Band toured Guinea within a few weeks of independence and were rapturously received—as was Cuban music, so hardwired into Guinean music, from which it largely derived, that even Toure couldn't expunge it (and following the Cuban revolution of 1959, he probably felt he didn't need to anyway). A little later, Congolese rumba was another heady infusion.

Woven into these imported influences was traditional Guinean music, uniquely rich in polyrhythms, mainly of the Manding and Foulah peoples. The synthesis was cool and loose-limbed, a relaxed but insistent dance style played in the main by ten-piece and bigger line-ups featuring vocals, three or four electric guitars, horn sections, balafons (xylophones), kit drums and traditional percussion. A few bands added keyboards in the mid 1970s.

Guitars were key to the music. Upwards of twenty lyrical soloists are featured on Authenticite, but two players in particular stand out—Sekou "Diamond Fingers" Diabate of Bembeya (featured on 4 tracks) and Sekou "Le Docteur" Diabate of Orchestre Du Jardin De Guinea and its successor the Balladins (featured on 3). The precise recipe varies from player to player, but Guinean balafon music, Ghanaian "palm wine" highlife and, from the late 1960s, Congolese rumba all contributed to the Guinean guitar style. Guitar arrangements often made a feature of polyrhythms, and Authenticite includes three outstanding examples: 22 Novembre Band's "Kouma," Horoya Band's "Were Were," and Camayenne Sofa's "Karomoko."

Factor in virtuosic, griot-style singers, including Bembeya's Demba Camara, one of the all-time great Guinean vocalists, and loping, jazz-inflected tenor saxophonists (after guitarists, the next most frequently heard soloists), and you have something magical and transporting.

The 28 tracks which make up Authenticite are sequenced more or less chronologically, with disc one covering 1965-72 and disc two 1972-80. Most of the tracks have never before appeared on CD and many of them have effectively been lost for decades. Their restoration to the public domain is a major event. A well-researched 44-page booklet accompanies the discs.

Rail Band featuring Salif Keita & Mory Kante
Rail Band 1: Soundiata

Mali's Rail Band also owed its formation to post-colonial state sponsorship, though of a lighter touch than that applying in Guinea. By the late 1960s, the Hotel de la Gare in the capital, Bamako, had become the de facto networking headquarters of visiting international businessmen in town to trade with the emergent independent state. The Ministry of Information decided a Malian band of international quality was needed to entertain the guests in the hotel's garden bar and dancing area, and saxophonist Tidiani Kone was asked to put it together. The Rail Band began performing nightly at the hotel in 1969, and continued to do so, with changes in personnel, for three decades.

Among the band's first vocalists were the extraordinary Salif Keita (1969-72) and Mory Kante (1972-75), both later to become big world music stars, and between them featured on six of the eleven tracks making up Soundiata. The album is the first of three scheduled double-CD collections of Rail Band music recorded 1969-83. Most of the tracks included on this first volume were made 1970-75.

Of necessity, the Rail Band played a broad repertoire, but they made their name with Malian audiences with what they called "modern folklore." At its core were the songs and rhythms of Mali's griots—hereditary performers and repositories of tribal history—re-arranged for modern instruments including electric guitars, saxophones, trumpets and (occasional) keyboards but also featuring balafons (xylophones), koras (harps) and traditional percussion. The vocals were straight out of the griot tradition, unmediated by European influences, and their lyrics were drawn from the oral histories of Mali's peoples.

The crowning glory of Soundiata is unquestionably Mory Kante's "Soundiata L'Exil" from 1975—a 27 minute epic, originally titled "L'Exil De Soundjata, Le Fondateur De L'Empire Mandingue." Opening with majestic horn fanfares, and kora-like electric guitars, the work is in three parts. The first, 11 minute section is in the Rail Band's characteristically slow-paced, rolling duplex-time style, one two, one two, measured and purposeful, like a camel on the march. Kante alternates between high-pitched, declamatory solo vocals and deeper, more conversational passages punctuated by the affirming grunts and monosyllables of a second singer.

A more urgent and up-tempo, 5 minute bridge morphs into the tune's concluding 12 minute section, where duplex and triple time signatures are crossed to create a greater sense of tension and forward motion. The guitars move between cascading, kora-like runs and reverb-heavy phrases owing more to Duane Eddy, the King of Twang. Kone's sandpapery, shades-of-Sonny Rollins tenor saxophone creates counterpoints to Kante's vocals and dialogues with the guitar solos.

Most listeners outside Mali won't understand a word of the lyrics, and 27 minutes is a long time to command anyone's undivided attention—but "Soundiata L'Exil," so rich in melodic invention and rhythmic sophistication, engrosses from start to finish. A true classic.

27 minutes gone, another 72 to go. And what a ride they are too, including Keita's "Sunjata" (1970) and "Soundjata" (1972) and the exquisite "Duga" (1975), featuring Magan Ganessy, another outstanding griot-style vocalist, less internationally celebrated than Keita and Kante, who sang with the Rail Band 1972-83. Subtitled, appropriately, Belle Epoque, alongside AuthenticitÃËÃ'© the album is one of the African music highlights of the year.

Tracks and Personnel

Authenticite: The Syliphone Years

Tracks: CD1: Soundiata/Keletigui Et Ses Tambourinis; Diaraby/Balla Et Ses Balladins; Soumba/Kebendo Jazz; Karan-gbegne/Horoya Band National; Djanfamagni/Bembeya Jazz National; Kankan-yarabi/Orchestre De La Pailote; Semba/Orchestre De Dabola; O.U.A./Orchestre De Beyla; R.D.A./Palm Jazz; Minuit/Bembeya Jazz National; P.D.G./Orchestre Du Jardin De Guinee; Koukou Befo/Orchestre De Beyla; Information/Kebendo Jazz; Le Guinee Wodi/Orchestre De Kindia; Mariama/Super Boiro Band; Boiro/Bembeya Jazz National. CD2: Kouma/22 Novembre Band; Miri Magnin/Keletigui Et Ses Tambourinis;Samba/Pivi Et Les Balladins; Bembeya/Bembeya Jazz National; Were Were/Horoya Band; Nana/Soumbory Jazz; Zimai/Palm Jazz; Fabara/Syli Authentic; Karomoko/Camayenne Sofa; Soko/Tropical Djoli Band De Faranah; Ziko/Nimba Jazz; Festival/Le Simandou De Beyla.

Personnel: see Tracks.

Rail Band 1: Soundiata

Tracks: CD1: Soundiata L'Exil; Maliyo; Sunjata; Armee Mali. CD2: Duga; Mali Cebalenw; Armee Malienne; Fankante Dankele; Armee Mali; Soundjata; Mali Tebaga Mogoma.

Personnel: Rail Band: various line-ups including Salif Keita, Mory Kante, Magan Ganessy, Lanfia Diabate, Sekou Kouyate, Djelmady Sissoko: vocals; Moussa Kone: trumpet; Tidiani Kone, Kabine Keita, Ledi Youla: saxophone; Nabe Baba, Djelimady Tounkara: lead guitar; Ousmane Sogodogo, Mamoultou Diakite: guitar; Korobala: percussion; Pacheco, Fotigui Keita: drums.

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