BEMBEYA JAZZ at Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay West), Friday (August 22), 8 pm. Free. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
The recent resurfacing of Senegal's Orchestra Baobab was surprising enough, but the sudden re-emergence of their West African big-band rivals the Rail Band of Mali and Guinea's Bembeya Jazz after equally long absences from the spotlight is too unlikely to be mere coincidence. Since Orchestra Baobab's celebrated return and reunion tour predated the reappearance of the others, it's widely assumed that Baobab's critically lauded Specialist In All Styles (World Circuit) disc provided the impetus for Bembeya Jazz to reassemble in a recording studio and quickly knock out a selection of old repertoire faves that they've just released as the Bembeya (Marabi/Bros) disc.
However, according to Bembeya Jazz's trumpet-playing bandleader, Mohamed Achken Kaba, the reason for releasing a new disc filled with somewhat pale Afropop recreations of their best-loved songs from the 60s, 70s and 80s wasn't to cash in on Baobab's popularity and the growing interest in the West African big-band sound. He puts an entirely different spin on why they've chosen to come back now after a 14-year silence.
"Even though Bembeya Jazz has not released any discs for some time, the group has never broken up," Kaba explains through a translator as he gets set for the group's performance tomorrow (Friday, August 22) at Harbourfront Centre. "We have continued to play shows across Africa, but primarily in Guinea."
Because it's so expensive for a band the size of Bembeya Jazz to produce a recording these days, especially when you consider the cost of travel, accommodation and studio time, it's often financial circumstances that determine which groups can record and when.
"In 2001, Christian Mousset from Marabi Productions wanted to stage some shows with the larger groups from West Africa, beginning with Bembeya Jazz. To let everyone know that Bembeya Jazz was back, Christian wanted to release a disc, and it was decided we should re-record our best-known songs so people would know this is really Bembeya Jazz."
The Bembeya disc is heavily weighted toward their trademark horn-pumped adaptations of historical and story songs derived from Manding folklore and traditional rites typical of rural Guinean villages, and the prominence of the group's three guitarists in the mix is characteristic, as well. But whereas the function of guitars in groups like Orchestra Baobab and the Rail Band is primarily rhythmic, with everyone playing in support of the groove, in Bembeya Jazz the focus is instead on the razzle-dazzle flash of the group's main attraction, guitarist Sékou "Diamond Fingers" Diabaté.
Although Diabaté and Orchestra Baobab's resident six-string slinger, Barthelemy Attisso, share a common influence in the free-flowing runs of late, great Congolese maestro Docteur Nico - which can be heard in Diabaté's Hawaiian-style slack-key excursions - Diabaté has always been much more of a showman. He rarely passes up an opportunity to solo, and likes to indulge in his beautifully fluid ripping for extended periods, to the delight of guitar fans everywhere. Diabaté's the star of the show, and he knows it.
He's also certain of Bembeya Jazz's place at the top of the heap. Anyone who thinks the rivalry between the West African bands has long since ended need only mention the name Baobab or Rail Band in the presence of Diabaté and stand back.
"Bembeya Jazz has been together for 42 years," snarls Diabaté. "That's nine years longer than the Rail Band and 17 years before Baobab started.
"I'm quite confident that Bembeya Jazz is musically superior to those other bands. Our music is number one in Africa!"
That's quite a grand claim on behalf of a band that rarely performs outside Guinea. They've been able to sustain such a lengthy career largely because of the nurturing support of Guinea's late president, Sekou Touré, who made Bembeya Jazz the country's national band and created their own venue for them, the Bembeya Club.
When their chief benefactor died in 84, Bembeya Jazz, then left to fend for themselves, nearly died with him, recording only sporadically since then. Yet for Diabaté, there's no questioning Bembeya Jazz's pre-eminence.
He's ready to go to the mat.
"Bembeya Jazz is the number-one band. If there was a competition for African music, there's no doubt in my mind that we would come out on top. In fact, Baobab would be disqualified, because they mix Latin music with African music. Whether the contest is music or wrestling, Bembeya Jazz will win win win."