Imagine, if you will, the Republican Party wins the American election in November. One of the first acts of President Mitt Romney is to ban all rock ‘n roll bands, not to mention country, bluegrass, jazz, pop groups, symphony orchestras and chamber orchestras. In their place, his Vice President Ryan announces, the Republican Party will set up ‘official’ bands in each community who are paid salaries and sing songs that praise the Tea Party and other great national themes.
Impossible, you say? Let’s hope so. What sort of excrutiating music would those bands produce? That is impossible to imagine.
But something like this happened a few decades ago in the West African country of Guinea. The first President of independent Guinea, Ahmed Sekou Toure, in 1958, disbanded the country’s many musical groups. In their place the government sponsored and set up a raft of official music groups, with the aim of creating a national consciousness among the people. Among these groups was one band, Bembeya Jazz National, which quickly became one of Africa’s most influential, accomplished and well loved bands.
Bembeya Jazz, also referred to as the Orchestre de Beyla in the early days, started as the regional orchestra from the town of Beyla in southern Guinea. They were formed with the help of the local governor, Emile Kondé, to act as the region’s "orchestre moderne". The initial line up included Sékou Camara and Achken Kaba in the brass section on trumpets, Sékou Diabaté on guitar who was the youngest member at the time, Hamidou Diaouné on bass and Mory "Mangala" Condé on drums. Leo Sarkisian (who went on to join the Africa Service of the Voice of America in 1963) recorded Orchestre de Beyla in 1961 for the Hollywood based Tempo International label (Tempo 7015). The band were just being formed in Beyla and according to Sarkisian, called themselves Orchestra Bembeya, after a local river. The session also featured the female singer Jenne Camara as part of the band. The recording, one of ten Tempo LPs featuring a variety of Guinean music recorded by Sarkisian, was not released commercially. All 10 LPs were pressed in limited editions of 2,500 and released in 1962, but the majority of them were sent to the Guinean government. Bembeya's album was titled Sons nouveaux d'une nation nouvelle. République de Guinée. 2 Octobre 1962. 4ème anniversaire de l'independance nationale. Orchestre de Beyla and included the songs Présentation, Yarabi, Lele, Din ye kassila, Wonkaha douba, Seneiro, Wassoulou and Maniamba.
They became better known as Bembeya Jazz after the release of their first album and added singers Aboubacar Demba Camara and Salifou Kaba to the band.
Specializing in modern arrangements of Manding classic tunes, Bembeya Jazz National won 1st prize at two national arts festival's in 1964 and 1965 and were crowned "National Orchestra" in 1966.
Initially an acoustic group, featuring a Latin-flavored horn section of saxophone, trumpet, and clarinet, Bembeya Jazz National reached its apex with the addition of lead singer Aboubacar Demba Camara. The group toured widely, and became one of the most well-known groups in Africa. Among their biggest hits were the songs "Mami Wata" and "Armee Guineenne". (Wikipedia)
Bembeya Jazz National and other official Guinean groups such as Balla et ses Balladins went on to become the ‘shining light’ of a newly decolonised continent. Their musicianship was intricate and exciting even if the subjects of the many of the songs were superficially boring. The national airline. The Guinean army. But there is absolutely nothing boring or canned about this music. It is endlessly creative, full of joyful verve (joie de vivre) and bags of fun. Just listen to the rousing live version of Super Tentemba and tell me you wouldn’t want to have been there with a big bottle of beer in your hand, dancing the hot night away.
Whoever thought official propaganda could be so pleasurable!
Track Listing: (Disc one)
1-01 République Guinee
1-02 Sabor de Guajira
1-03 Armée Guineenne
1-04 Dembaty Galant
1-05 Air Guinée
1-06 Guinée Hety Horémou
1-07 Montuno de la Sierra
1-10 Doni Doni
1-11 Camara Mousso
1-12 Super Tentemba
1-13 Mami Wati
Track Listing (Disc two)
2-08 Dya Dya
2-09 Sina Mousso
2-12 Petit Sékou