Bembeya Jazz | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Bembeya Jazz formed back in 1961 in Beyla, a small village in southeastern Guinea. Having grown extremely popular throughout the country, in 1965 it became one of the first bands to receive state sponsorship under president Sekou Toure. The following year the group relocated to Conakry, the nation's capital, where it played up to six nights a week, developing a sound based on a three-guitar lineup that generated cyclical, buoyant grooves and gently rolling harmonies. The band built its repertoire by revamping traditional Mande music, and while their earliest work had a strong Afro-Cuban feel, with a punchy horn section and clave accents, by the late 60s these elements had been crowded out by traditional instruments like the balafon. Creative director and lead singer Aboubacar Demba Camara was killed in a car accident in 1973; the band held on, playing regularly in Conakry and recording albums for the national label, Syliphone. But by 1988 the group could no longer make a living playing music. Cofounder and guitarist Sekou "Diamond Fingers" Diabate insists that the group never broke up, but it took French producer Christian Mousset and his label, Marabi--which has also put out music by other African vets, including Mali's Super Rail Band and Congo's Wendo Kolosoy--to get it back in action for a festival in 2001. Last year Marabi released Bembeya (out in the U.S. on World Village), the band's first new recording in 14 years. The current version features a number of original members--including Diabate, trumpeter and musical director Mohamed Achken Kaba, drummer Conde Mory Mangala, alto saxophonist Dore Clement, and singer Kaba Salifou--along with new vocalists Youssouf Bah and Doumbouya Alseny. As good as the album is, with its irresistible grooves, extended guitar solos, and soulful, griot-inspired singing, it doesn't compare with the live set the group played last fall at the Womex Conference in Germany. These gigs are Bembeya Jazz's first in Chicago. Thursday, August 28, 7:30 PM, Spirit of Music Garden, Grant Park, Michigan between Harrison & Balbo; 312-742-4007. Friday, August 29, 9:30 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo; 312-362-9707. Saturday, August 30, 5:30 PM, African Festival of the Arts, Washington Park, 51st & Cottage Grove; 773-955-2787.

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