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Bembeya Jazz National - The Syliphone Years

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Artist: Bembeya Jazz National

Album: The Syliphone Years

Label: Stern’s Africa

Review date: Mar. 31, 2005

In the late 1960s through the 1970s, Guinea’s Bembeya Jazz was one of the most important – and majestic-sounding – bands working in, and inventing as they went along, the then-new West African electrified griot style. Begun as a state-sponsored arts project for the propagation of local music under the aegis of Socialist President Sekou Toure, Bembeya nonetheless incorporated a blend of diverse flavors – including the jazz, Cuban music, and Congo-style electric guitar rumba so beloved by West Africans at the time – into a music based solidly on the griot and folk traditions of the ancient Malian Empire.

The two CD set The Syliphone Years represents Bembeya during the period of their most dynamic, creative work and greatest popularity, and gives ample evidence of what made this band so special. On classic singles and album tracks from the early ’70s, a perfect and precise interlock of percussion, electric bass, sharp horn section accents, and balafon-like supporting guitar patterns limn a riverbed so that the soloists – among them, guitarist Sekou “Diamond Fingers” Diabate, trumpeter Sekou “Le Growl” Camara, and the sublime vocalist Demba Camara – can flow along with the rippling current.

Guitarist Sekou Diabate is one of the great virtuosos of African – or any other, for that matter – electric guitar. His crystalline reverb-and-echo laden lines take flight with surprising twists and turns, summoning the essences of instruments like West African kora, balafon, or Cuban tres, tracing quicksilver Sahelian calligraphic patterns that leave the listener breathless. Singer Demba Camara’s delivery of traditionally-inspired moral parables in a dance band setting combines elegance and a tinge of vulnerability, his voice rich with the same sort of yearning, spiritual expression to be heard in Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece What’s Going On.

Demba Camara’s charismatic performances and graceful, empowered modern take on traditional culture were in some ways the heart of Bembeya Jazz, and his tragic death in a car accident in 1973 nearly destroyed the band. But after a period of mourning, Bembeya went on. The later tracks here, from 1976, reveal the band’s development of a looser-limbed approach, kick-drum driven, with increasing influences from disco and funk, Ghanaian highlife and Congolese soukous; a slower, more spacious groove for the soloists – Diamond Fingers in particular – to ripple along with, to soar above.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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