Interview: Sekou Bembeya Diabate
After the 2002 Musiques Métisses festival in Angoulême, France, the legendary Guinean dance band Bembeya Jazz stayed behind to rehearse and record in a nightclub called Le Nef. The band spent their days working hard there, and at night, retired to the comfort of an abbey to stay in rooms usually reserved for priests in training. This was an unusual setting for a mostly Muslim band, but it was peaceful, and it gave a journalist a rare opportunity to have a long conversation with the band’s leader and founding member, Sekou Bembeya Diabate. Here is that interview.
Banning Eyre: So, Sekou Bembeya Diabate, how did you get your start in music?
Sekou Bembeya Diabate: How I came into music–it’s a family affair, from generation to generation, a grand Manding griot family. Traditional. From father to son. My father played the balafon and the acoustic guitar in the traditional griot style, [with the fingers] without chords, and then you put the capo on to change the key. That’s it. My father [El Hadj Djeli Fode Diabaté (d. 1988)] was among the first who introduced the guitar to Guinea.
I was born 1n 1944 in Thiero, in the region of Faranah, in haut-Guinea, far from Beyla. When I was very young, I was much more interested in the guitar than in the balafon. My father wanted to send me to Koranic school when I was ten, and I said to him, “But I need a guitar.” So he ordered a special guitar, a metal guitar.
B.E.: A National steel guitar?
S.B.D.: To be sure. To be sure. Nobody in my generation had a guitar like that. It was for the big people. But my father found it, especially for me. So with that I began my autonomy.
B.E.: Eric Charry writes in his book that Facelli Kante made the first guitar recordings in 1954. But you had grown up with the guitar, all your life. There was never a time when you didn’t hear the guitar.
S.B.D.: Not at all. The songs he recorded I didn’t hear at the time, because I was still in the village, but when I came to Conakry around 1959, I heard those recordings. But at the time, no.
B.E.: When did griots first start playing guitars?
S.B.D.: I don’t know exactly, but I know that ever since the 1930s, there were guitars around. My father had one.
B.E.: I love that your father not only played but got you a good guitar. So many guitarists I’ve interviewed started out by having their father try to stop them from playing.
S.B.D.: No. No. He understood. There was no problem.
B.E.: He understood that music and education could go together.
S.B.D.: In 1959, I was invited to Conakry by the son of a friend of my father’s. He invited me to visit Conakry. So I stayed in the Bonfil neighborhood. His name was Abou Camara and he lived there. This was my first time in Conakry and I had a great time there. At the time, El Hadj Sidikiba Diabaté was already in Conakry, and a big, big artist. He was an uncle of mine, so I went to his family. Now his son, my cousin, “Papa” Diabaté, was the number one guitar player of the time. “Papa” Diabaté. He was the one who showed me my first lessons in modern guitar playing.
B.E.: Before that, it was all traditional.
S.B.D.: Because I didn’t like that.
B.E.: It went against your traditional education.
He had asked me if I knew Sirakata Diabaté, and I had said, “But Sirakata Diabaté is my father’s younger brother!” He said, “Oh good.” So we kept talking. Then he told me he was leaving for Beyla and had I ever been there? I said, “No, I’ve never gone to Beyla.” Kankan already seemed far away to me; Beyla was really far. It was another 250 km into the forest. Very far! As he understood that I didn’t want to go, he left. Then he went to Sirakata and he explained, “Sirakata, I’m going to give you a car especially to go and get your nephew in Kankan.” And he came looking for me. When he told me we were going to Beyla, I said, “No, I’m not going.”
I said, “No, it’s not worth it.” I prepared my things and we went to Beyla.
B.E.: You were forced to go?
S.B.D.: Definitely (tout a fait). No one was used to that. Me I was in the plain tradition with my big brother, Papa. We were among the first musicians. He was in the national orchestra, which was called Syli Orchestre. So because of that, I had understood the idea of a band. In ’59 and ’60, I was with him often, whether he was playing in the Orchestre National or just in a bar. It was great lesson, both for me individually and the group. That served me well.
B.E.: So in the beginning in Beyla, what sort of concerts did you play?
S.B.D.: It was a little later that the Biennales started. Every two years, they would make a selection in each locality to find groups to perform in the capital to be among the best.
B.E.: I must ask about my friend Leo Sarkisian, who arrived in Beyla just as Bembeya Jazz was starting up.
S.B.D.: I was astonished. It was extraordinary. It made me think, hey this music is serious. This American has come all the way here to record it. That’s serious. We really have to work. It encouraged us even more. That is not an ordinary thing, that an American comes to record us. So, we really have to work. That really helped us.
B.E.: Maybe Sekou Toure knew it would have that effect.
S.B.D.: That was later. Because we won a competition, one time, two times. After we had had lots and lots of success in the captial, Conakry, the Bureau Politic National proposed that we come to the capital. That was now in 1965. That was when we were nationalized and became a national band like Keletigui, like Bala. We were now the third group. We moved in 1966 to Conakry.
B.E.: Is that when you became Bembeya Jazz rather than Orchestra Beyla?
S.B.D.: We had a meeting and said each person must propose a name. We had a friend there called Bankal (?) Traore. He was the one who said, why not just Bembeya Jazz? Since that day, we’ve been Bembeya Jazz. That’s it. Since April 1961: Bembeya Jazz.
B.E.: So looking at the members now, you were there. Mohammed Kaba was there. Mory Konde (Mangala) was there on drums. What about the singers?
S.B.D.: Salifou was not there. He came in 1963, with Demba Camara. They came together. On that first record, he was not there.
B.E.: So in the present group, we have three original members, and Salifou, who came two years later.
S.B.D.: That changed everything. We were promoted from a small town to a big capital city. That’s a big promotion. We had to work hard to merit this honor. We couldn’t slack off.
B.E.: What was Conakry like back then?
S.B.D.: Paillote. Jardin du Guinea. And later the Palmier. With all that, the town was really animated.
B.E.: So how did things change over the years?
S.B.D.: By 1980, we weren’t playing as regularly any more. We played, but not like before. There were lots of other groups by then too. In every time, with music, it’s the youth who earn all the money among us. That’s why I tell you that times change. The current generation of young musicians earn the money.
B.E.: Right up to today.
S.B.D.: Yes, less strong than before, but we still played a lot.
B.E.: What was the effect on music in Guinea when Sekou Toure died in 1984? Was that a big deal?
S.B.D.: No. What I would like here is for us to talk only about the musical side. As far as the political side, I know nothing about that. We should just talk about the area of music. There, I can tell you whatever you like, but as for the political side, I have nothing to say about that.
B.E.: Okay. It’s interesting to me that so many African musicians have strong relationships with political leaders, but very few actually sing about politics in their songs. Even in interviews, others have declined to discuss politics with me. Would you say that by its nature, Guinean music is not political music?
S.B.D.: The first big success among the songs of Bembeya Jazz was “Dembaty Gallant,” which I sang myself. It was my composition in 1964. That song was a total success in the country. Women even designed a fabric for that song.
B.E.: What did the song say?
S.B.D.: Voila. That song really interested the women. It was the first big, big success of Bembeya Jazz. Then there was “Armee Guinea,” which the Voice of America played often. There was “Mami Wata.” That was a popular song. The name is Anglophone, but it had been passed from generation to generation in the Koninke language, where we were. It’s about the demoness of water. Mami Wata, like the English word.
B.E.: The demoness of water. Like Yemanya among the Yoruba.
S.B.D.: And it is a music that does not die.
B.E.: Eric Charry writes in his book that most of the horn players in these bands came from military bands and were more familiar with European music, but the string players, especially guitarists, came from the tradition of griotism. He says that it was the mixing of these two experiences that created this music.
S.B.D.: Yes, yes. “Regard Sur le Passe” is a masterpiece.
B.E.: It’s interesting, because you went into popular music not to avoid tradition.
S.B.D.: Thank you.
B.E.: But in the context of Sekou Toure’s Guinea you had to bring the two things together, tradition and modernity. Were you happy with that?
S.B.D.: It wasn’t mean, but when you have competition–as the word suggests–you don’t want to lose. If I am competing with you, I want to win. It’s not mean, but it’s a struggle. No, it isn’t like that. No, no, no, no. Each one of us, we talk, we greet one another. Ohhh!
B.E.: It’s perhaps like the competition between OK Jazz and African Jazz in Congo.
S.B.D.: Oh yes. Because every band had its arranger. It’s true that a single person cannot do everything 100%, and what is clear is that there is one who guides. Without him, nothing can work. To me, it’s clear. Is that not true? So this is why there was the difference–when you heard Bala, you knew right away that was Bala; when you heard Keletigui, you knew right away that was Keletigui; when you heard Horoya Band, you knew right away that was Horoya Band. And when you heard Bembeya Jazz, you knew that was Bembeya Jazz. That’s it.
B.E.: And you were the arranger there.
S.B.D.: That’s it. Yes. God gave me the gift to have that intelligence right up to this day. I hope that while we were rehearsing there you could follow a little. I was bringing in certain modifications in preparation for the recording we are going to make.
B.E.: That’s the most important thing, eh? The arranger.
B.E.: But arranging came on very strongly during this period of the dance bands.
S.B.D.: It was Oh! I will ask the year. I will ask Askia; he will tell you. Something like 1970. So the chef d’orchestre at that time was Hamidou Diawane. It was not Kaba. Hamidou Diawane was the first band leader. We spent almost 26 years together. Every one of us had a meeting at La Paillote. No, pardon. It was Jardin du Guinea, because we played there at that time. We met there and we said, “What should we do?” What should we do? So we went from left to right, and me because I am a griot, I already knew. When I was young, my father had played this song for me. I said to my colleagues, “Why don’t we play ‘Samory?'” They said, “You know the song for Samory?” I said, “I don’t know the song for Samory, but I know that the song for Samory exists, and as there is the Instrumental Ensemble here, and they are of the same generation as my father, it’s sure that they will know.” So they said, “You will concern yourself with that and record the song.” I had a tape recorder at the time. I took my tape recorder. Salifou was with me. We went to the rehearsal for the Instrumental Ensemble, and we recorded the song, and the text–the story–Salifou concerned himself with that.
B.E.: The song is “Keme Burema,” isn’t it?
S.B.D.: Voila. Exactly. For the general of the army. So that’s the story of “Regard Sur le Passe.” All the bands had prepared their concerts, and we presented that. I think it was in 1968, in the Presidential Palace, and when we played, “Regard Sur le Passe,” everyone said, “What is that?” [LAUGHS] And we won the first prize.
B.E.: So that was the first time you had real griotism in a popular band, and of course, people were astonished.
S.B.D.: Certainly. Afterwards we had other concerts. Then later, in 1973, we said, let’s change the style. Let’s put on a real show, hot. We did our first one in 1973, with girls, everyone moving. That was something else also.
B.E.: Now I have to ask you a sad question, about the death of your great singer, Demba Camara.
So now, I don’t really know what happened. Maybe the chauffeur was driving a little too fast. On a turn, the car rolled over. And when the car rolled, the car stayed upside-down. The chauffeur, Salifou and I were all still in the car. The others were behind us in another car, following. When they arrived, they saw that Demba had been thrown out of the car. He never spoke again. And soon he died.
B.E.: Wow. So then afterwards, this was a very hard time for the band.
S.B.D.: The band was not broken up. In life, there are ups and downs, good moments and bad moments. So you wait. Life is like that. So we can’t say that the band was broken up. Never, never. We were waiting.
B.E.: The last recording before this was in 1988, right?
S.B.D.: Yes. Oh, you heard that? Diamond Fingers? [LAUGHS]
B.E.: Oh, you bet. I wrote about it.
S.B.D.: It’s like a factory that has problems. The factory may not be working, but the workers are still there. We had no projects on the outside. Before that, we used to get contracts in Europe, but that stopped. When Christian Mousset met us in 1999 at the Festival at Angoulême, he proposed a project to me. He said he wanted to make a recording of Bembeya Jazz for his new label. He said, there is you and the Rail Band. First I will do the Rail Band and Djelimady, then you too will make an album with the band, and a solo album. I said, “With pleasure!” So when the time came, we started rehearsing. Everyone was very happy.
B.E.: Christian is quite an important man in the history of this music, isn’t he?
S.B.D.: But of course. People love us a lot in Conakry. They are proud of Bembeya Jazz. They feel this in Africa in general.
B.E.: Mamadi Kouyaté, one of the newest members of the group, told me that there was a very important moment when you played at Kérouané for the 100th anniversary of Samory. Tell me about that.
S.B.D.: That’s it. I’m going to talk to Christian about that. I think it’s time to record a version of “Regard Sur le Passe” in an English version. There’s a project. If you can do that, maybe with a partner, I think it will sell a lot of copies in the United States.
B.E.: There’s an idea.
S.B.D.: Yes. I got the call to come back to Conakry. I left everything and I went. It was a new beginning.
B.E.: Mamadi also told me what a hard time he is having organizing the band’s equipment because the government doesn’t do anything to support musicians as it did in the past. He seems to feel that today’s government no longer understands how important music can be for the country. What do you think of all that?
S.B.D.: You might say that I’m a fanatic, but for me, the destiny of a man is in the hands of God. That’s why I don’t condemn people for what they do or don’t do. Christian Mousset, for example. He stayed here, but he thought about us. That’s God. From all these miles away, he thought about Bembeya. That’s God. If someone doesn’t do something for us, there will be another. I don’t condemn someone for that.
B.E.: I follow you. For me, it’s not about a particular country, or government, or leader. I just have the hope that African governments in general could rediscover a little of the old inspiration for the arts that Modibo Keita and Sekou Toure had. Because truly, this is a great richness that is being lost in many countries. Christian has done a lot, but why does he have so much ability? It’s partly because the French government understands this and gives him money to do it. This festival couldn’t exist without their support.
S.B.D.: It’s not cared for. That’s true. But that will change one day. Really.
B.E.: Okay, let’s talk about now. You are going to make your own album with Christian after this project. What’s the plan? Big group? Small group?
S.B.D.: No, it’s Sekou Bembeya Diabate. You won’t regret it!
B.E.: I’m sure. Tell me about three guitars. Was it always that way?
S.B.D.: Oh, it must be 20 years ago now. More than that.
B.E.: I love the sound. I’m not a keyboard fan, but this way, the sound is full anyway.
S.B.D.: It’s very good. It’s original, and it’s pleasant.
B.E.: And Mamadi plays very well. He told me he was playing the solo in Bembeya while you were living in France.
S.B.D.: “Sabou” is the cause of something. For example, we can say that our arrival here is thanks to someone, Christian Mousset. That’s “Sabou,” the cause that makes something happen. The cause of my coming here, or of my happiness. Our sabou here is Christian Mousset.
B.E.: Good. And who wrote that?
S.B.D.: Yes. Because Sekouba came to the group in 1982.
B.E.: Then, “Bapier.”
S.B.D.: I don’t know the signification. The person who gave us that song is no longer in the band. It was Diagbe Traore.
B.E.: Then “Bembeya International.”
S.B.D.: Okay, that’s a social song. It comes from a circumcision ceremony. It’s tradition. That was Nagna Mory Kouyate who wrote that song.
B.E.: Well that’s about all the time we have. Thanks so much for talking with us!
S.B.D.: Thank you, and be sure to greet all of America. Vive l’Amerique! Vive la Guinea!