Bembeya Jazz National
"The Syliphone Years"
1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die
More often than not, music plays a role in the development of a new nation. Here's an early "interesting fact" for you: Brits refer to Americans as "yanks" because the colonists frequently marched to "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Fast forward a couple hundred years and the world's newest countries are still paying attention to music when they form a state. During the Cuban Revolution, the rebel government banned brass instruments as a symbol of the lingering European presence. The Taliban got rid of non-sacred music when it assumed control of Afghanistan in the '90s. Basically, governments look to mold the nation's music scene into what seems ideal.
For the most part, musicians don't like being instructed what style to play. In Guinea however, the Bembeya Jazz National fit right into the officials' plans. Guinea won its independence from France in 1958 and politicians looked to install official state bands that would encourage Guinean culture more so than French. It would be unkind to suggest that the National was a puppet act for an overarching government, but official sponsorship (and having the government distributing its records) didn't hurt. Just take a look at the track listing on "The Syliphone Years" and tell me if you see any patriotic themes: "Republique Guinee," "Armée Guinéenne," "Air Guinee" and "Guinée Hety Harémoun." The album also includes a song titled "Beyla," after its hometown, but it's clear pride is on the menu.
Regardless of its intentions, the band's musicians are pretty good. The group, consisting of multiple guitarists, trumpeters, saxophonists and percussionists, focuses much of its work around Calypso, a Trinidadian music form that is derived from West African influences anyway. The guitarists, led by Sékou "Diamond Fingers" Diabaté, are reminiscent of King Sunny Ade and Billy Beane in their silk-smooth approaches. Diabaté impresses with single-string solos on tracks like "Sabor de guajira," and experiments with his picking style on the bluesier "Sou." The horns get occasional action during longer, drawn-out jams, but tend to stick with call-and-response blasts that correlate with the vocals. And of course, it wouldn't be West African music without polyrhythms from the percussionists.
French isn't my best language so I'm loathe to translate any of the messages here for you. I imagine that they aren't anything special, probably just the patriotic praises that the government was paying them to put out. It's of no matter however. The true joy here is in the instrumentals, and at least you can ignore the outside political noise on "The Syliphone Years," unlike with most English music. Who knows. In 40 years, we might look at a musician's collective from South Sudan, the world's newest nation, from the same perspective.
INTERESTING FACT: Syliphone, the label that released this album, translates to "Elephant's ear" in French.