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Published: 2003/09/28
by Jesse Jarnow

Bembeya – Bembeya Jazz

World Village 468013

If the act of making music is a constant series of creative choices, then so
is the act of listening to it. That is, from second-to-second, one can make
new judgments about how he wants to interpret it. Guinea's Bembeya Jazz is a
series of well-considered choices, for both musician and listener, with the
former guiding the latter on a most curious path. On the surface, Bembeya
Jazz is a sparkling African dance group, interlocking guitars, diamond
horns, and churning rhythms all grinding together. But, beneath that, there
is an accumulated history, both as a band and a national artifact.

It's hard to imagine a band like Bembeya Jazz existing in the United States
— not because their music is particularly out there (it's fairly
straightforward), but because circumstances like theirs don't exist here.
The African group was founded in 1961, and joined a government-subsidized
circuit of regional bands celebrating the recent independence of the nation.
The band preserved bits of the country's history, and were soon crowned the
National Band by visionary President Sekou TourWhen Tourenationalized
the dance bands in 1984, Bembeya Jazz was given a club to use as their
homebase. Out of government hands (and funds), the band couldn't keep
afloat. Bembeya, their latest, represents a recent reunion (though
old material).

In practice, Guinea's music scene is presumably just as hierarchical and
ingrown as the western recording industry, though just as valid in its
convolution. But it leads to a whole range of questions. Obviously, it is in
a president's interests to have popular artists singing positively of his
policies or, better, lionizing his character in song. American musicians,
for example, are frequently chastised for taking big money on the premise
that they, in turn, will become shills for those who subsidize them. In
terms of selling out, the concept of national bands eliminates the middleman
by having the bands working directly for the government. Thus, there can be
little mistaking what ideologies the bands represent. When one stops to
imagine an America with a system of national bands, fantasizing about which
groups would represent who, and what a nationalization of the recording
industry might represent (New Deal-era progressivism or National Socialism
most foul?), the mind reels.

As non-Guinean listeners, short of extensive studies of national history, we
can never really understand the music in its original context, never know
what it means to go see Bembeya Jazz play on a Friday night in Conakry. So,
we're left with options. Really, this is no different than any other music.
Listening to any music requires acts of imagination just as profound as the
musicians'. In some ways, no matter how schooled a musician is, his main
task is to simply provide a listener with places to make choices. Bembeya
Jazz, especially to American listeners, does that in spades. Or, rather,
this particular release – Bembeya on the World Village label, and
distributed in the United States – does that in spades.

Outside of Guinea, one can dig it as dance music, or one can dig it as a
cultural document. Both of those methods are implied by the band's
self-presentation. But there are other elements, especially when their
records appear on labels trading in the sonic tourism of world music. In the
non-English lyrics, English-speaking listeners surely find something else.
If they don't speak the language, they must come up with their own meanings
(or, at least imagine that there are meanings). One can read the
folksy summaries of what they are about ("It talks about an old woman
sorcerer in the small village of Sanfaran"), but then there's context,
'cause this ain't primitive music. That means something in the context of
the politics and culture of Guinea. And, hey, it also means something in the
context of international forces that allowed Hawaiian melodies to creep into
Sekou Diabat39;s guitar lines, that allowed Bembeya Jazz to reform and make a
new record in France, that allowed the album to find its way to American

All of those meanings flit about in the music, bounce in the hornlines,
twinkle in the three electric guitars, and one is left with a completely
rich experience.

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