Interview: Eric Charry on Bembeya Jazz
Eric Charry is associate professor of music at Wesleyan University and the author of many works on West African music, in particular the superb book Mande Music (University of Chicago Press, 2000). In January, 2004, Afropop’s Banning Eyre spoke with Charry at his home in Middletown, CT, for background on Guinea’s greatest modern band, Bembeya Jazz.
Banning Eyre: Welcome to Afropop Worldwide.
Eric Charry: Thank you very much.
Eyre: Eric, I want you to give us a context in which to understand the creation and rise of Bembeya Jazz. At the moment when these musicians were coming together in Beyla for the first time–in 1961 or 2–what was going on in Guinea? What was the situation?
Charry: I think to understand early Guinean modern music, you have to know the politics, the national politics, which was Guinea becoming independent in 1958 and they were the only French West African nation to vote “no” to remaining with the French African Community. They went on their own. So Sekou Toure was elected president right away in late 1958 and in 1969 he created the national orchestra, the Syli national orchestra, and people came from Dakar, the conservatory. They were called back. The orchestra grew and grew in ’59, ’60, ’61, and eventually split into two groups. Besides Bembeya there were two other major groups. There was what became Bala et ses Balladins, and Keletigui et ses Tambourinis. There were these two groups [in the capital], but Bembeya was off on its own. They were not part of this national orchestra. They were a regional orchestra.
What Sekou Toure had done was to create these regional orchestras in the early 1960s. He funded and patronized them. So in Beyla–that was in the southeast of Guinea–the local governor decided he wanted an orchestra. I think that was in 1961. So in Conakry, there was this national orchestra–and that split into two–but in Beyla there was this local, regional orchestra patronized by this regional governor, Emile Conde, and they just started off small. There was this first incredible recording that Leo Sarkisian had done with just acoustic guitar, a small group that looked like they were just starting out. They hadn’t really had any kind of significant training. Somehow by the mid-60s they had really formed into a tight group and began entering national competitions.
By the way, the griot, Sidiki Diabate, who traveled around with Leo Sarkisian on that first trip, was actually Sekou Docteur and Papa’s father–that’s what’s so interesting about this story! He was a heavy-duty musician, who pioneered the guitar between the two world wars, and Sekou Toure put him in charge of forming the national instrumental ensemble. So not only was Leo’s tour guide one of the major and most respected musicians in Guinea, but he was also the father of two of the greatest guitarists of the era.
Eyre: What were the criteria of success in those competitions? What made a group like Bembeya rise to the top?
Charry: That’s hard to say. The orchestras that were rising to the top–orchestra at that time meant guitar and brass based bands–usually came from Maninka ethnic groups. So they had these guitarists that came from a jeli tradition and also singers that also were affiliated with that. Another important thing to understand about Guinean modern music is these two families, the Kantes and the Diabates. In a sense, they had a lock on the musical aspects of these bands. The two other major bands that Syli split into both had Kantes as guitarists and singers, and Bembeya Jazz had Sekou Diabate as its guitarist. And so, through the guitar, these bands had a close connection to the jeli or the griot tradition. I think that was probably what Sekou Toure recognized, that through them, they were able to make that local connection. These bands all sounded very Cuban oriented. They were learning right off records. You can tell from their early recordings. But more and more throughout the 60s they became localized and began to dig into indigenous traditions and the strongest ones in Mali were the Maninka jeli or griot tradition.
Eyre: The Bembeya vocalist Salifou Kaba talks about doing research in villages to find material for the band. He doesn’t mention griots so much as popular songs sung at celebratory moments in the village. It’s a big party, a full moon night. What are songs people are singing that we might use?
Charry: Yeah, I think it’s still in the hands of the jelis. They have this deep repertoire that goes back to Sunjata. Then they have more recent ones, songs like “Minuit” or “Diarabi.” And these are songs that are exactly like that, popular songs that are played on Saturday evening for dancing. But often it’s the jelis who are playing the guitar or kora or balafon. Those are the ones who are animating it musically, so even though they’re talking about local folklore and popular traditions, I think it’s still in the hands of the jelis.
Now there’s a second stream of musicians who are Western educated, French educated Africans who have had training on the guitar or banjo or accordion actually. That stream, they were playing French pop music, and so the Syli National Orchestra, also Bembeya Jazz and the orchestras from the early 60s, they were a product of these two streams, one stream of the jeli tradition and one of the French popular, colonial tradition. So these two blended in the 60s and by the 70s they got their own national, Guinean sound.
Eyre: One more thing about the folkloric scheme. Salifou talked about ritual sources too. He mentioned initiations, even circumcision rituals, especially for the song “Lefa,” the fan the girl uses to cool herself off during a dance that accompanies the ritual. Would songs like that also be controlled by griots?
Charry: No, not necessarily. I can’t really talk a lot about that. I don’t know much about it. Those kinds of songs are probably more in the hands of drummers, djembe drummers or other kinds of drummers. Griots don’t usually preside over circumcision ceremonies. So they were probably drawing on these other traditions in addition to the griot tradition.
Eyre: How exactly did Sekou Toure actually get bands to leave aside the Cuban repertoire and focus on local traditions?
Charry: I don’t know what the actual order was on top. I don’t think anyone I’ve talked to went into that. But you can hear it, though. That’s the interesting thing is that it’s coded in the music. So the early recordings of Bembeya sound very derivative of Cuban music, and even on the LPs, they tell you whether it’s a biguine or a cha-cha-cha or calypso. But that stops in the mid to late 60s. I think one turning point is “Regard Sur le Passe,” that epic recording by Bembeya Jazz done in the late 60s. There’s a balafon present, and I think it’s really significant that they integrated a balafon into a guitar and brass based orchestra. That’s this epic rendition of the story of Samory Toure, who was a grand warrior in the late 19th century who resisted the French. It’s a 30, 40-minute piece, along the proportions that you would normally hear from a griot, but in the context of a formerly Cuban based band. So I think around the late 60s, there was this turning point when they began to look inward and began to shed their Cuban influences bit by bit.
Eyre: Samory Toure is actually an ancestor of Sekou Toure, right?
Charry: It’s a bit controversial. He claims him as his ancestor. Some historians are a little skeptical about that. Same Toure family. The only question is whether there’s a very close blood relationship or a more indirect relationship.
Eyre: Sekou tells about going back to his griot family and friends, to do research on things he had not been much interested in before.
Charry: They rose to the occasion. The piece was called “Keme Burema,” named after the brother of Samory Toure. It’s originally played on the balafon. Nowadays kora players play it also, but you can hear how the balafon part is the way they normally play it, just stuck in with electric guitars, a vocalist and drum set. It’s a bona fide rendition of a Mande or Maninka epic. The balafon player on that, by the way, is El Hadj Djeli Sory Kouyate, who is the most well-known balafon player in Guinea. And he’s actually touring the U.S. next month (February, 2004). He’s giving a concert in Zankel Hall in New York. He’s an elder statesman right now.
Eyre: Did other groups use traditional instruments too? Is this something that happened a lot?
Charry: The integration of traditional instruments into the orchestra didn’t happen until the mid- or late-60s, or early 70s, and it was a slow process. It was primarily the balafon, largely because the guitarists often came from jeli families and they had learned the balafon first and then transferred the balafon to the guitar. So it was a natural combination. And the style of guitar playing that they did in the orchestras was balafon style. In Guinea, at least. In Mali, it’s a different story. It’s more ngoni, this lute-playing style, or kora-playing style. So I think the balafon was the first. It wasn’t until really the 80s that people like Mory Kante’s cousin Djeli Moussa Diawara would play kora with acoustic guitar. There was a market for that, and it came to be more and more popular. It was probably Mory Kante–who was Guinean but grew up playing in Bamako, Mali–who brought the kora into the electric orchestras in the mid-70s when he joined the Rail Band.
So again, a slow process, starting with the balafon and then the kora. By the 80s and 90s, any of the jeli instruments could be played in this context, kora, ngoni or balafon.
Eyre: Guinea has a lot of great and innovative guitarists. How does Sekou “Bembeya” Diabate stand out from the pack?
Charry: He just had a lot of talent, and at a young age just picked it up and absorbed the Maninka style of making music. Whether or not he was trained as a balafon player, he absorbed the style. There were a bunch of great Guinean guitarists, Manfila Kante, who made his name with Les Ambassadeurs in Mali, and then the other Diabates, like Sekou “Docteur” Diabate who was with a rival band. They each had their own special talents. Sekou “Bembeya” was able to grasp the African polyrhythm and integrate it into the context of a modern orchestra.
He’s a showman. He’s definitely a virtuoso and a showman, and probably more than the other guitarists. I’ve seen photos and videos of him in the 70s, and he’s on his back, feet up in the air, playing guitar, or playing the guitar behind his neck. And if you look at their outfits in the early 70s, they have wide bell bottoms with flower power shirts. So they very much were influenced by American styles too. What was Cuban music in the 60s became American rock in the 70s. They had shed the Cuban music by the 70s, but there was this rock flashiness that had replaced it. They were still playing in their indigenous style, but there was a somewhat psychedelic aspect to their music.
Eyre: Let’s talk about the Cuban thing. Sometimes I feel that the Cuban tinge actually held on more in Guinean music than in, say, Mali or Gambia.
Charry: Hmm. It’s hard to say. The arranger Boncana Maiga, who is Malian, spent the mid-60s at the conservatory in Havana studying, and he’s the brains behind the Africando operation. So there’s a strong Cuban component in Mali also. I think these three Francophone countries–Mali, Senegal, and Guinea–have such strong Cuban influences right from the start in the 60s. I would say that through the past several decades it’s come and gone, and come back again. In the 70s and 80s, they let go of that overt Cuban sound. In the 90s and more recently, I think there’s a move to come back to that.
Eyre: In Senegal with mbalax and in Mali with all the traditional styles, I feel like there was a more radical rejection of the Cuban sound than in Guinea.
Charry: Yeah. And again, I can’t overestimate the importance of the guitar in Africa, and particularly in West Africa, in Guinea and Mali. The guitar brought in outside influences, but it also was connected to local instruments. So it was this mediating force that could bring local traditions onto the international stage, and bring international traditions into a local context. So when they were learning Cuban music, they played it on the guitar. When old timers nowadays want to play what they see as local, traditional music, they may go back to Cuban music, which was the first kind of guitar playing that they had done.
Eyre: What about brass players? What was their experience and what did they bring to these bands?
Charry: They were at a disadvantage, because those instruments were not so common and they were expensive. Brass players came from a more aristocratic or noble class. Because their parents could afford to send them to school, they were often civil servants, and they had access to a French-style education. It’s not like you can just pick up a trumpet or a saxophone and just play it right off. Guitar is a little bit easier. The guitar is one of the most widespread instruments around the world. People can pick it up and make decent sounds from it pretty quickly. Trumpet and saxophone is not so easy. You need training. So brass players were not from griot classes. They were from the aristocracy.
Eyre: Also the music they would have learned was very different, wasn’t it?
Charry: Yeah. I think probably exercise books, French popular tunes, maybe even some classical music.
Eyre: Also marches I think. You can hear that character sometimes in the brass arrangements. They’re foursquare, bold, even a bit clunky at times. I’m thinking especially of that long, rather formal song they did for Sekou Toure’s part, the PDG.
Charry: Keletigui Traore was a horn player, and he was the leader of one of these three top Guinean bands, but in terms of the soloists, it was really the guitarists who ruled. When they wanted to get people dancing, it was the guitar solo that did it, not the brass section.
Eyre: Yeah. The brass is more about ornamenting the singing. Coming back to Bembeya Jazz, talk a little about what happened after that golden period in the 60s and 70s?
Charry: Another important thing to help understand Guinean music is the Syliphone record label. Guinea was unique in that this was a national record label. Mali didn’t have it. Senegal didn’t have it. Even the Congo, Zaire, didn’t have it. So you have the government supporting local orchestras. Then when the government hits hard times, then things fall apart. That’s exactly what happened through the 70s. Bembeya Jazz had this golden age in the 70s, but by the late 70s, there were serious economic problems in Guinea. Syliphone released about 80 albums. The last ones were in the late 70s, early 80s. Guinea just fell apart economically. It was as simple as that. There was no patronage, no opportunity to earn a living. When Sekou Toure died in 1984, that definitively spelled the end of it, and people looked to France for further opportunities.
Eyre: By that time, world music is beginning to catch on in Europe.
Charry: Yes, but Bembeya Jazz missed the initial boat. Guinea in general, compared to Mali. If we’re talking the mid-80s, the world music boom was happening in Paris and London. There was a nice migration from Mali to Paris led by Salif Keita and Bembeya just was not there at the right time. The first two francophone West Africans to get on the boat were Salif Keita and Youssou N’Dour. Bembeya didn’t have international record support. It was really solo singers that were supported, not bands. Les Ambassadeurs had broken up. Rail Band in Mali and Bembeya Jazz in Guinea stayed together, but under hard times, and did not reap the benefits of the world music boom until very recently.
Eyre: The international audience was more prepared to comprehend a star singer. King Sunny Ade was more or less both, a singer and a bandleader. Guitarists were appreciated but not in the same way.
Charry: I guess Franco would have been the person. He was this great soloist. Maybe the only other guitarist who had that kind of charisma would have been Sekou “Bembeya,” but he wasn’t a singer. It’s vocalists who rule, for sure, as in any pop music.
Eyre: What do you think about the last recordings the band made in the 80s. They were going for drum machine production and all that Paris stuff.
Charry: Yeah, for Sonodisc. They’re hard to listen to for me. I don’t really have much to say about them. It seems like they’re following a trend and don’t have much to offer.
Eyre: It seems like Bembeya Jazz, even more than the Rail Band, kind of lost track of its local audience as we come into the 90s. For some years, they would only play if the government or someone with a lot of money called them together to do a show.
Charry: I was there in ’95, either ’93 or ’95. Sekou was totally approachable. I went to his home and he was doing nothing. He said, “Come down to the club and meet me.” So I went down to the club and I think it was him and Achken [Kaba] and maybe two others just sitting around drinking coffee, doing nothing. I don’t think they were playing. No opportunities and no tourists. Nothing was happening for them, where at least in Bamako there were tourists coming through and that strong French connection. That’s why I was surprised when I heard that the band was really happening again.
Eyre: And they are. Their shows here last summer were spectacular. Whether they have the ability to innovate anew and create new songs remains to be seen, but they sure can play. In contrast to, say, the newest work from the Rail Band, Bembeya’s new album and shows pretty much reprise classic material.
Charry: And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, particularly to introduce it to a new audience. And again, I think the Mali situation is different because in Mali, they’ve had a scene all along. It never really disappeared. In Guinea, I think they had much more tragic consequences because of what Sekou Toure reaped upon the country. And then they were under a military dictator in the mid and late 80s.
Eyre: What’s your overall impression of Sekou Toure? He seems a very contradictory figure, a visionary and a dictator. The Bembeya musicians I spoke with wanted no part of commenting on him. Even Salif Keita–who’s pretty fearless–is reluctant to say a critical word about him.
Charry: He’s an enigmatic figure. Sometimes in this world, there are no easy answers. He’s one of these guys where he was a great patron of the arts. Musicians loved him. He did a lot for the music culture of his country, and Guinea became one of the leading African countries in terms of its musical culture, presenting it to the outside world in the 1960s, due to Sekou Toure. But he became increasingly paranoid in the 1960s. That’s what happened. He began to think that people were plotting to overthrow him. He began putting people in jail and they began disappearing. One of the most dramatic was Fodeba Keita, who was the founder of Les Ballets Africaine, the first African ballet in Guinea. Sekou made him the Minister of the Interiors. By the mid and late 60s, Sekou began to feel that this guy Fodeba Keita wanted to overthrow him, and he put him in jail and he disappeared. It’s not even known when he died. I believe his date was around 1971, but no one really knows. It’s a very different kind of dictatorship from, say, Mobutu in Zaire. Sekou Toure was not embezzling billions of dollars from Guinea. He was very much a patriot for his country. He just turned out to be very ruthless in terms of dealing with his political opponents.
So what happened was in the decade of the 60s and the early 70s, Guineans reaped the benefit of a very strong musical culture. But throughout the 70s, there became more and more of an economic disaster and political disaster too. I think millions of people literally fled Guinea into Mali and neighboring countries. But again, it would be hard to find a Guinean musician who would criticize him because they’ve reaped the benefits of strong musical patronage.
Eyre: Even now, after all they’ve suffered since.
Charry: He was a revolutionary hero, and you can’t take that away from him. He thumbed his nose at the French and he organized his people, and he was one of the first to organize an African country and say, “We want to go it on our own.” And his people supported him. So throughout the 60s, this was a revolutionary hero to look up to, and he was successful. And he had musicians supporting him, and they were making great music, so in a sense, how can you criticize that? It just turned out that he became increasingly paranoid and this very, very dangerous and evil side of him came out, and eventually wreaked havoc on his own country.
Eyre: Finally, looking to the future, what can we expect from Bembeya Jazz after all this? They’re back on the scene, but what can they really do now?
Charry: Sekou “Bembeya” is such a great guitarist that it’s in the cards somewhere for him to do an acoustic album with some interesting, creative musicians, maybe putting him with some non-Guinean musicians. I think he’s due to be in the spotlight as an acoustic guitarist. That should hit a nerve in the international market. As far as Bembeya Jazz, it’s hard to say. These guys came up in the 60s so they’re in their 60s now, if not older. I don’t know if you should expect innovation from them or just getting tighter at what they did. That may be their main contribution at this point.
Eyre: Sekou did one acoustic album in 1995, Diamond Fingers. Did you hear that one?
Charry: Yeah. It’s a little disappointing. It’s great to hear him play. But he needs a more interesting, international setting.
Eyre: He’s got a new one he’s just done. I haven’t heard it yet. The producer Christian Mousset is very excited about it. So we’ll see.
Charry: You know that Guitarre Seche album, with four acoustic guitarists? Someone needs to put Sekou “Bembeya,” Manfila Kante and Djelimady Tounkara in one room. That would be a superstar album that I think could be a smash. I think all three of them would enjoy being put in the spotlight and being put on tour.
Eyre: Well, we’ll wait for that. Thank you very much.
Charry: Thank you.