While Bembeya Jazz was rehearsing to record their comeback album, Bembeya, in May 2002, Banning Eyre had the chance to sit down with lead singer Salifou Kaba to discuss his nearly 40 years with the band. Here is their conversation.
Banning Eyre: Why don't you start by introducing yourself?
Salifou Kaba: I am Salifou Kaba, cabinet maker and musician by profession. I was born in Kankan in 1943. I went to Koranic school, French school. In the end, I was oriented towards an apprenticeship center and cabinet making. I spent four years there and I emerged as a cabinet maker. That was how I went to Beyla, two-hundred and some kilometers from Beyla to work making tables, chairs and cabinets. I had my brother there who had done his studies in Havana. He came back with lots of Cuban records. I sang along with those records. At my workshop, I sang lots of Cuban songs. [SINGS] Things like that. During my vacations, I went to Kankan to buy wood. I had studied carpentry with [Aboubacar] Demba Camara. But when I went back to Kankan, he wasn't there. I went to his family. His father was a train conductor, and he was in Mamou with Demba. Demba had abandoned carpentry and was repairing bicycles. I telephoned his father to say, "Your friend has left Beyla to find you in Kankan. Can you come to Kankan and meet with him?"
He came and found me in Kankan where I had bought my wood, and we went to Beyla together. When we got to Beyla, my diploma said that I was an engineer. On his diploma, it was written, "passable." The head of the workshop saw that I was an engineer like him and demanded proof for Demba. We [did something to the diploma] and he was hired at the same salary as me. As we had been accomplices in Kankan before arriving in Beyla, the Cuban songs I was singing, we would bring them home and sing them together. We knew them already. So there was a tourist hotel in town called Relais. Every night we found Bembeya already in place. But there were no real singers. There was a girl, Nome Djenne (?), who sang, but it was not really the thing. Everyone was singing.
B.E.: Was the group already called Bembeya Jazz?
S.K.: Yes, the group was already called Bembeya. But there weren't any real singers. They had called it Syli Jazz. But six months after they changed the name to Bembeya, we came.
B.E.: So what year was that?
B.E.: So that first record made by the American, Leo Sarkisian…
S.K.: We were not on it.
B.E.: You and Demba.
S.K.: No, no. We weren't there yet. After this record, we came. So as I say, everybody was singing--the drummer, the bass player. Then we came. Sekou, the guitarist, he had passed by our workshop and seen us working and singing. He asked us to come by the Relais that night. "We are going to form a little group." That night we went to the Relais at about 8:00. Sekou had his acoustic guitar. The tourists were there, eating. We introduced a song and we started to sing. As my voice was softer than Demba's, they took me. My voice was higher, more feminine--right up to the present. Demba was a tenor. But I said, "I can't come into the group if Demba doesn't come also." That's how it happened. They said, "Okay, if that's how it is. Demba will come too." That's how we started.
We started working--one month, two months. Then the wood was finished again and I took a truck and went to Kankan again to look for wood. Demba stayed behind in Beyla. As he was staying behind and he had nobody to care for, he stayed at my place. After awhile, he got bored. He wasn't being well paid, so he left for Nzerekore, and when he left there, he went on to Lola. But Bembeya had now got used to having singers. But we had left. I was in Kankan; Demba was in Nzerekore. The band was worried. They sent the drummer Mangala to Nzerekore to find Demba. But he didn't want to come. A week later, I got home to Beyla. I wrote to Demba and sent the letter with Mangala. When he saw my letter, he decided to come back, and that's how the band continued.
B.E.: After that, Demba went on to become a huge star.
S.K.: Yes, after that, we sang together. Bembeya started to have success at festival after festival. We went to Havana together.
S.K.: In '64.
B.E.: Wow, and you were such a fan of Cuban music. What was it like to go there?
S.K.: We saw the Cubans and they were good. We sang in Manding, but before leaving, we had learned a song by Abelardo Barrosa. [SINGS] This song was called "El Guantanamo." We sang this song. You know that the Cuban musicians used written music. But we had nothing like that. We came, we played. And Abelardo Barrosa was astonished. He said, "Is this song known in Africa?" Demba laughed and cried. He said, "If you come to Africa, they are going to eat you alive, because everyone loves you there." Old Barosa cried also. He said that Demba was his son now.
So we stayed there for a couple of months, and afterwards, we came back to Guinea. We continued home to Beyla. At that point, we were not yet a national orchestra. We were still a Federal band. We stayed there and we kept competing in the competitions, because at that time, every year, there were competitions among the regions. Best band. Best theater group. Best football team. Even writers. They would choose the best. So in Beyla now, in the band competition, there were two runners up. There was Kébendo Jazz of Gékédougou, another Federal district, and there was Bembeya Jazz of Beyla.
Afterwards we went back to Beyla, but we were angry. We didn't want to be runners up. We want to come in first. So when we got back to Beyla, we started looking hard. We went to the griots, the old people, in the moonlight where the children sing and clap. We went and listened, and we took these things. It's like [SINGS "Akukuwe"] We took these things because they were popular. So now, at the second competition, we were first!
B.E.: And Kebendo Jazz?
S.K.: Second place! So that's how we got to Conakry as a national orchestra. With us, when you are national you have become truly professional. After we arrived in Conakry, we did nothing other than music. We were paid by the government and every morning, we rehearsed from 10:00 or 11:00. In the evening, everyone went to meet their friends, their girlfriends, parents. We had become professional now. But at night, starting at 9:00, there was dancing in the capital. We started at 9:00, right up until 2:00 in the morning.
B.E.: Every night?
S.K.: Except for Friday, because on Fridays in Guinea, there were the neighborhood meetings. People would meet to discuss the problems they were having in the neighborhood. So there was no music on Fridays. Monday also. That was the day of rest.
B.E.: So that's how things went. Now Sekou told me about the death of Demba [Camara], and how it broke the spirit of the band for awhile.
S.K.: Very much so! His accident happened like this. We were invited to Dakar by an association called Les Daganois. They are Peuls. Before leaving, the Minister of Youth invited us to his place. He said, "You have been invited by the Senegalese. What must we do?" He told us we must play very well. Demba listened to his words and then said, "M. Minister, we must go, but we have no instruments."
At that time, in Africa, there were no sound system rental companies. None. Every band had to travel with its own instruments. It was not like now. So Demba said, "We will go to Senegal, and present ourselves with our broken instruments. Truly, this will not make me happy."
The minister said, "Okay. The government has ordered new instruments from Italy. They will come. But as the date is close, you must go as you are. When you return, you will find the instruments waiting." He said, "Don't worry," and everyone went home. The next day, Demba came in his motorcycle. It had a sidecar. We were rehearsing at the Jardin de Guinea. Before the rehearsal, he told us, I am going to visit a woman in Coya, 50 km from Conakry. This woman had told him that Bembeya had to make a sacrifice, that there would be an accident. …. After the rehearsal, he called us together and told us this. This woman in Coya, she threw shells and said that there would be an accident, that Bembeya had to make a sacrifice. When he said that, each member of the band gave 100 francs, 100 francs each to buy kola nuts. And we prayed with them and gave them away.
After we parted, Demba took his motorcycle. In turning in front of the dancing [club], he crashed into another car. We said, "Ah! Demba was right. If we had not made this sacrifice, it would have been serious." It was two days later that we traveled to Dakar. We took the plane and we left. In the airplane, he and I were together. We had a thing when we traveled. We always took a little money of the country we were traveling to and after the plane landed, we went to the bar and had a coffee. This time, it was my turn to buy the coffee. So when we landed, I bought the coffee. Demba used to drink coffee three times a day. He loved that. I said, "Demba, I've bought the coffee," and he said, "Ah, really, I don't feel like coffee now." He had a novel with him, The Count of Monte Cristo. Even on the plane he was reading that. So now he said, I don't feel like drinking coffee. He said he was tired and wanted to rest.
We got our baggage and left the terminal. There was a car from the embassy there to meet us. Now, as I was both a singer and the sound engineer, Sekou told me to go in that car and go to the venue to listen to the amplifiers and make sure everything is okay. I said okay and got in the car. Demba followed me with his book. I said, "Demba, stay here." He said, "No, no. You will drop me at the hotel, and then you can go on to the see where we're playing." That's how he got in.
We took the cliff road. The driver was very happy. He did not have the price of a ticket. He told us he would leave us at the hotel, go and find his girlfriend, then come and find us at the hotel and go dancing! He was happy, pumping, pumping. I saw the speedometer rising. 80, 90, right up to 110. I felt something rising in my mouth, but I could not say it. I could not tell him to slow down. So it was me, Demba and Sekou. Sekou was in front with the driver. I was in the back with Demba. Demba was to my right. So as the car reached full speed, we saw another car approaching. The chauffeur veered and then he couldn't get control of the car again. We hit the sidewalk and the car rolled. I saw the streetlights above, below, above, below. The door flew open and Demba was projected out. His head hit the sidewalk. He was curled up like that when we found him.
B.E.: That is terrible. Thank you for recounting that.
S.K.: When Demba was gone, we trained three singers. There was me, Nagna Mory Kouyaté and Moussa Touré. We named this trio Bazoka. Bazoka was like the guns used in the military.
B.E.: So that was the vocal sound for the group after Demba died, three voices.
S.K.: Voila. Trio Ambiance Bazoka.
B.E.: Interesting. Demba Camara was not a griot, right? But Nagna Mory Kouyaté was.
S.K.: That's right. That was the first time a griot sang in Bembeya Jazz.
B.E.: But you had already done "Regard Sur le Passe" by this time.
S.K.: Yes. Demba sang that. But Nagna Mory redid it after the death of Demba.
B.E.: And he also did one of the songs you're recording now, "Akukuwe."
S.K.: Yes. That was his song.
B.E.: So this was the group that went to FESTAC in Nigeria.
S.K.: Yes. In 1977. That was something. Where we're staying as artists, 300 meters away, there was Fela's place. And there, with Fela, we met Bob Marley.
B.E.: Naturally you knew Bob Marley's music by then.
B.E.: And Fela too?
S.K.: Yes, him too. I slept at Fela's place.
B.E.: But was Fela's music known generally in Guinea at that point?
S.K.: Of course. His music was known in Guinea. Bob Marley too. His music was also known in Guinea. So, there had been lots of festivals, but this one in Nigeria was the biggest. It was really good. All the African musicians, Europeans, Americans. It was full. Everyone was there.
B.E.: So tell me about meeting Bob Marley.
S.K.: There was me, the current chef d'orchestre Achken Kaba. We had a trumpeter, Sekou, the fat one. He's in business in Guinea now. He doesn't play music anymore. We went also with Barry of Khaloum Star. He was there too, but not with us. He was working with a childrens' theater, but as he was a musician, he was often with us. So we went to Fela's together. Because Fela really liked Sekou Touré. Fela in his bar had posted the photographs of African heads of state, Sekou Touré and everyone, even Idi Amin.
S.K.: [LAUGHS] Yes, even Idi Amin. Well, we can't condemn him. That's what he did. So Fela, when he came to sing at midnight, he took the microphone and he said, "There are musicians here from Guinea who are happy to come to our bar. Bembeya Jazz." And he cited the names of the musicians. And Bob Marley came and said, "I want to meet the musicians of Bembeya Jazz." We went. He spoke in English and I understood a little. We spoke in French and he understood a little. That's how we talked. He presented his wife, Rita. In the end, he left me with his wife and he went, I don't know where. I thought he had gone to [MAKES SMOKING GESTURE].
B.E.: With Fela.
S.K.:Voila. They went. So that made me happy to meet him. We stayed there until 7:00 in the morning.
B.E.: So after that, Bembeya's success continued for awhile.
S.K.: Yes. We toured Africa, a little bit everywhere.
B.E.: Things got harder after the death of Sekou Touré, I understand. You had Club Bembeya, but not as much work as before, right up until the last recording in 1987. What did you do during those quiet years?
S.K.: It was a bit difficult. Before the death of Sekou Touré, he explained that the government had a lot of problems. He wanted the national artists to be payed as public functionaries. He said, as there is Bembeya Jazz, Keletigui and his Tambourinis, Horoya Band, Bala et ses Baladins, you are all going to have your autonomy. Keletigui stood up and said, "M. President, we want to stay as public functionaries." But we in Bembeya, we did not. We wanted to be independent.
The president said, "Try. You must try. If it's not good, the government is for you. We are your brothers. You can come back, but first, try." They gave each group a "dancing" with some money. I think it was 60,000, for the building, to get chairs, to paint a little. The government gave us this money along with a complete set of instruments. We had to manage from there. So each group worked its corner. Club Bembeya was for us. Paillotte was for Keletigui. Jardin de Guinea was for Bala. Miniere was for Horoya Band.
But soon, this coincided with the death of Sekou [Touré]. The military rose to power. They verified everything. The musicians? They just left us like that. Up to this moment, they have just left us as we are. We have our bar. We have no instruments now. No sound system. But we have our place. So if Bembeya remains like that, we have to struggle. If not, we will just sink.
B.E.: Mangala told me that the bar provides a little income for the band, but not much, I imagine.
S.K.: Not much. I am still a cabinet maker. I have my workshop. I make bar decorations now.
B.E.: Now, the music is starting again. This really is a new chapter for the band, isn't it?
S.K.: We're counting on you now, the journalists. What counts in the world now is the media. We musicians we can play, but we are not in the media, it won't work.
B.E.: We'll try! Let's talk about the songs here. Let's talk about "Sabou."
S.K.: It's like I was just saying. The journalists are the cause. In Malinke, sabou is the thing that is the cause of your success. That's what we sing in "Sabou." If it weren't for that, I couldn't have done this. It was Sekouba Bambino Diabate who wrote this.
B.E.: About when?
S.K.: Ohhhhh… the date now…. 1982? He says in "Sabou," it was Bembeya that was the cause of my fame. I was in my village, Siguiri. It was Bembeya who brought me to the capital. If it weren't for Bembeya, I would not be known. He's telling his story. He was in the federal orchestra of Siguiri. And we took him to the capital to sing with us.
B.E.: What year was that?
S.K.: The date… His first song was "Telegram." After that, "Sabou." That was his second song.
B.E.: Okay, let's talk about "Gbapie."
S.K.: "Gbapie" is a song from the forest. We had a saxophonist who had been in Horoya Band before. As Horoya Band wasn't working much, he came to us. "I am a musician. I can't sit at home. I want to play with you." That's how he came. He told us he had a song called "Gbapie." He sang it for us and we took it. With us, when you are a national orchestra, you are obliged to sing in Pulaar, in Guerzé, in Soussou. You can go everywhere in the forest to play, so you have to be ready.
B.E.: And "Gbapie" is in what language?
S.K.: In Kono. That's a language of the forest.
B.E.: And the saxophonist is Diagbe Traoré. When did he come to the band?
S.K.: In 1987.
B.E.: So what do the words of "Gbapie" say?
S.K.: In a small village, as always, in the full moon, a young man has seen a beautiful girl. To have this girl, he sings this song, to charm her. "You, beautiful girl, you are perfectly formed, like a pear. When you speak, your teeth are also beautiful. You please me."
B.E.: This song starts out slow and winds up with the rhythm of the forest.
S.K.: There, you have the boy, after he has charmed the girl, and there is a dance. He takes the girl by the arm and he sings, "Hey mano-ye." Bam-Bam! "I want to bring you here." So in the musical arrangement now, we augment the rhythm and it becomes a popular dance.
B.E.: "Bembeya International."
S.K.: Bembeya left Beyla to come to Conakry [in 1966]. We had arrived in the capital. Now it was time to find clients. This song was a way of presenting ourselves, our band, to the Conakry public. "When you arrive in the capital, Bembeya Jazz greets you at the Jardin de Guinea….Horoya, liberty and fraternity!" Demba and I arranged that. Every week, we tried to create new songs to attract the clientele. There was competition between the bands. We had to create. That's how it was.
S.K.: It was me and Nagna Mory who arranged that one.
B.E.: You told me that this came from a traditional song sung in the streets.
S.K.: Yes, but it wasn't like that. We arranged it at my place.
B.E.: So should I say it's a traditional song arranged for Bembeya Jazz by Salifou Kaba and Gnagna Mory Kouyaté. Is that right?
S.K.: Yes, that's right. This is a popular song sung in the moon light. The girls sing with the boys. [SINGS] A "koukou" is a type of drum made with a calabash. When you hit it, it makes a deep sound: "Kou kou." So the song says, in the moonlight, I am going to tap this drum for my friend. [SINGS] This one came after the death of Demba, when we got Mory Kouyaté and Moussa Toure. I sang this with Mory Kouyaté.
B.E.: So that would be about 1974.
S.K.: That's it, a year after the death of Demba.
S.K.: Lefa was with Demba. He wrote that. It was his wife's uncle who gave us the tune. It comes from Wassoulou. Wassoulou is shared between Mali and Guinea and Cote D'Ivoire. Demba's mother was from there. [SINGS RHYTHM] That's where the rhythm comes from, but we modernized it a little.
B.E.: So what does the song say?
S.K.: "Lefa" is a song sung when young girls were circumcised. In the neighborhood, every family, your neighbors, when your child had been good--she came to help you pound millet, or to help you wash clothes--the day she was circumcised, 15 days later, they take her to [Margot] to put on other clothes. Then at night, everyone came to bring a little gift.
B.E.: To her.
S.K.: No, to someone you like. "Lefa" is a fan. While dancing, each person put a gift into a small calabash--fabric, rice, even money and gold. She takes the fan here. We call it Lefa. "You must wave the fan. My first girl is circumcised today. There is friendship, and there is friendship. It is today that I will show that she has helped me." People gave the gifts during this song. There were lots of girls. There could be 15 girls. The one who helped you was the one you gave to. The person who created this song first sang it for the daughter of a neighbor. It was a person who had no children, but every day this girl came and washed her clothes and worked for her. So when this girl was circumcised, as she had no children, she brought gifts and sang this song. [in Malinke, for Bembeya in 1968.]
Interviewer's note: The members of Bembeya Jazz want their listeners to know that they do not approve of female genital mutilation. The fact that some of the folklore they have adapted over the years has associations with this traditional ritual should not be interpreted in any way as an endorsement of what is plainly a brutal practice.
B.E.: "Yelema Yelemansso"
S.K.: That's in Konianke. A troubadour gave us that. He was someone who sang in the neighborhoods and small towns. We got that from him. When he sang, he sang about the chief of the traditional canton who was there in the time of Samory. He sings about these people. "Where are they now?" Yelema Yelemansso. The world changes. We live in a world of changes. Youssouf Bah adapted the song to Bembeya Jazz in 1987
B.E.: "Sanfaran Moussoukoro"
S.K.: This is also a popular song. I sang this with Nagna Mory and Moussa in 1974. [Trio Bazoka: Salifou, Gnagna, Moussa] There is a small village called Safaran, and in this village there is a sorcerer. If you are having problems with your children, or you need a job, or your crops did not yield a good harvest, you come and he explains to you the necessary sacrifices you must make, and he gives you remedies. If you have problems, you must see Safaran Mousoukoro. Moussoukoro is an old woman. [SINGS] "Old woman of Safaran, you are right. No one must anger you. If you are angry, it is not good for us. You are our hope. We must not anger you."
B.E.: So you are singing for the people of Safaran, that they must not do this.
S.K.: That's right. They must not annoy her. It is not good for the village.
B.E.: "Soli Wassoulou"
S.K.: This is like "Lefa." There was one very impolite girl. When you greeted her, she would insult you. When she was circumcised, she even hit the old woman who did was doing that. That's what the song talks about. This is in a language of Wassoulou, but it's Malinke, the Malinke of Wassoulou. It's folklore, arranged by Bembeya Jazz. It was the mother of Demba who gave us that. I sang this with Demba. She told us that when she was a young girl, she experienced this. She and this rude girl were circumcised together. This girl had wounded the old woman. So now after 15 days, they brought the new clothes for the girls, and everyone brings the gifts. But as this girl was rude, her mother had died. Her cruel mother sang this song. The girl insulted everyone; she respected no one. So when it was time to give the gifts, the cruel mother came with her gift, singing that what this girl did was not right. It was impolite. She sings this as she gives the gift.
B.E.: Thanks, Salifou. I look forward to seeing you in the United States.
S.K.: And you must come to Guinea.
B.E.: I will do that.
S.K.: And when you come, we are going to dine on you! [LAUGHS]