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Bembeya Jazz National: ‘Regard sur le passé’, an epic anthem honouring Guinea’s Sékou Touré

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Mythical African songs that made history

By Léo Pajon
Posted on Friday, 25 June 2021 09:45, updated on Wednesday, 30 June 2021 19:17

Born in 1961, the Bembeya Jazz National is the Guinean veteran of West African orchestras. BOURRON/MAX PPP

Recorded in 1969, the long musical epic poem that pays tribute to the country’s late president, Sékou Touré has been imitated far and wide.

This is part 4 of a 6-part series

‘Regard sur le passé’ also tells the story of Samory Touré, a Guinean resistance hero who challenged French colonial rule. “Culture is a better means of domination than the gun,” he once said.

After Guinea gained independence on 2 October 1958, its new president used artists as a way to consolidate power, promote patriotism and turn historical figures like Samory Touré into national heroes.

A tribute to bravery

Samory, the founder of the Wassoulou empire and an anti-colonial resistance figure who died in captivity on a Gabonese island, was Sékou’s great-grandfather. Sékou repatriated his ancestor’s ashes in late 1968, launching a national song competition to pay tribute to the bravery of such fighters who dared stand up to Guinea’s colonial invaders. Numerous orchestras took on the challenge.

He’s the reason why we’re where we are today, he’s the larger-than-life force who introduced us to our culture. Before independence, we knew about France and its history but nothing else.”

Since Guinea’s independence, private orchestras had been disbanded, with many musicians becoming civil servants. Each of the country’s prefectures and 2,500 ‘local revolutionary authorities’ had its own band, but the president preferred one in particular: Bembeya Jazz.

The group formed in 1961 (that changed its name to Bembeya Jazz National five years later), was one of Guinea’s leading orchestras of the time. Signed to the state-run record label Syliphone, their music was broadcast on Radio Télévision Guinéenne. Sékou attended some of their long rehearsals and brought on griots [akin to bards in Western culture] and party ideologists as consultants to advise the musicians.

With a running time of just under 40 minutes, the long epic poem Regard sur le passé (‘Looking back at the past’) – which is still available in the Syllart Records catalogue – was turned into song by Bembaya Jazz National and performed for the first time on 2 October, to mark Independence Day at Conakry’s People Palace. The track won the competition, naturally.

Balafon, trumpets and guitars

The group’s lead singer, Demba Camara, performed the anthem dressed as a ‘sofa’, the Mandinka term for the soldiers who fought alongside Samory. In the song itself, balafon, trumpets and guitars play off one another before giving way to Demba’s[HE3]  singing in Malinke and Sékou Camara’s spoken parts, recited in French.

After urging the sons, women and young people of Africa to listen to their story, the artists dive right into the song’s political message: “There are men who, although physically absent, continue and will continue to live eternally in the hearts of their fellow men. Colonialism, in order to justify its domination, portrayed them as bloodthirsty and savage kings. But, crossing the dawn of time, their story has come down to us in all its glory.”

Underneath the tribute to Samory, the revolutionary leader Sékou is clearly celebrated: “Thanks to you, we have become men / Thanks to you, we have gained independence / You are a model Guinean, and your enemies will forever be defeated.”

Silver medal at the Algiers Pan-African Festival

The epic song achieved success far beyond Guinea’s borders. Bembeya Jazz National were the recipient of a silver medal at the Algiers Pan-African Festival and enchanted a wide swathe of major orchestras south of the Sahara, in countries such as Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Mali and Senegal, which in turn set their own historical epics to music.

In 1971, not long after the release of Regard sur le passé, the group composed a new track, Chemin du P.D.G. (‘The PDG’s path’), that praised the Guinean political party Parti Démocratique de Guinée and its leader, President Touré, more overtly. The song came at a time when the latter’s regime was backsliding into authoritarianism, with Touré ordering the arrest and execution of his opponents, real or imagined. Émile Condé, a former regional governor and one of Bembeya Jazz National’s very first promoters, died a prisoner in Camp Boiro.

In a 2002 interview with the French media outlet RFI, the group’s conductor Achken Kaba and guitarist Sekouba Diabaté did not disavow their praise of the late president. “He’s the reason why we’re where we are today, he’s the larger-than-life force who introduced us to our culture. Before independence, we knew about France and its history but nothing else.”

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