Bembeya Jazz National – The Syliphone Years (2004)

Sterns Music

Bembeya Jazz National
The Syliphone Years
Recordings from the 1960s and 1970s
2-CD Anthology released by Sterns Africa 2004
Liner notes in French and English by Graeme Counsel


1. Republique Guinee
2. Sabor de guajira
3. Armee Guineenne
4. Dembaty Galant
5. Air Guinee
6. Guinee Hety Horemoun
7. Montuno De La Sierra
8. Waraba
9. Dagna
10. Doni Doni
11. Camara Mousso
12. Super Tentemba
13. Mami Wati
14. Alalake


1. Beyla
2. Fatoumata
3. Moussogbe
4. Sou
5. N’Gamokoro
6. Ballake
7. Mussofing
8. Dya Dya
9. Sino Mousso
10. N’Temenna
11. Telephone
12. Petit Sekou

I don’t usually like to just cut and paste reviews from other places in lieu of my own thoughts and commentary. But not only am I running around trying to settle a nasty visa issue this week, but I have also been sitting for months on a stack of amazing compilations from the likes of Sterns and Analog Africa and it’s about time I shared one of them. Since this one has a nice, well-written review from BBC, why not let them do the talking while I sip my morning coffee? I will just add: this is great music.


BBC Review
“‘..its hard to fault this superlative and long overdue re-issue,which commemorates a truly golden era in African music.”

Jon Lusk 2004-12-21


The music made in Guinea during the first two decades after independence from France in 1958 represents some of the most sublime and influential that any West African nation has ever produced. Backed by Sékou Touré’s socialist government, groups from every region of the country were encouraged to modernise their ancient musical traditions and were given the financial assistance to do so. And of all the musical riches that this policy unearthed, those of Bembeya Jazz National were the finest.

If you weren’t quite convinced by the band’s 2002 comeback album Bembeya, and the recent Guitar Fö from their mighty guitarist Sékou Diabaté, this 2-CD compilation really shows what all the fuss was about. It’s a thorough selection of their best work for the national Syliphone label, which began releasing local music in the mid 1960s. For those already familiar with compilations like Mémoire de Aboubacar Demba Camara -at least half of which is reproduced here -the first disc, which includes many early singles previously unavailable on CD, will be a revelation.

Highlights? Pretty much the whole damn thing, though it depends on your mood, such is the variety of styles they experimented with. All the ingredients that made their music so wonderful are there on their first single “République Guinée”; the trademark off-key brass section, grooving percussion, Sékou Diabaté’s exquisite guitar and the distinctively savoury vocals of Demba Camara. Apart from updating the griot songs of their largely Maninka heritage, the band revelled in outside influences.

Titles like “Sabor de Guajira”, “Montuno de la Sierra” and the rumba-flavoured gem “Dagna” illustrate the passion for Cuban music which they shared with many West African musicians of their generation. Likewise, “Mami Wata” is an affectionate nod to Ghanaian highlife, and “Sou” takes a short trip to Cape Verde. The compilation brings us as far as 1976, three years after the death of Demba Camara, by which time their sound was beginning to take on a soukous flavour.

Those who are fussy about sound quality should perhaps be warned that some of the recordings are copied from vinyl rather than the original master tapes, but also that this music is about ambience, not accuracy. The only major omission is anything from the epic Regard sur le Passé, probably because as Graeme Counsel’s excellent sleevenotes explain it consists of a single song spread over two sides of vinyl, and is best heard in its entirety. Otherwise, its hard to fault this superlative and long overdue re-issue, which commemorates a truly golden era in African music. If the brooding, majestic grace of Ballake doesn’t give you goosebumps, you should probably see a doctor soon. – Jon Lusk, BBC

Sterns Music

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Rail Band – Soundiata: Belle Epoque Volume 1 (2007)


Rail Band
Belle Epoque Volume 1
2007 Sterns Music (STCD 3033-34)

01 Soundiata (L’Exil) Feat. Mory 27:50
02 Maliyo Feat. Lanfia Diabate 06:40
03 Sunjata Feat. Salif Keita 14:50
04 Armee Mali 04:22

01 Duga (Bambara Version) Feat. M 08:00
02 Mali Cebalenw Feat. Salif Keit 06:35
03 Armee Malienne Feat. Mory Kant 04:23
04 Fankante Dankele Feat. Magan G 07:02
05 Armee Mali Feat. Tatine Dembel 04:53
06 Soundjata (New Version) 10:29
07 Mali Tebaga Mogoma 05:54

This is the first of three volumes that Sterns Music has devoted to the discography of the Rail Band, also known as The Super Rail Band, Orchestre Rail-Band du Bamako, Rail Band du Mali, and on occasion, the West African Lynyrd Skynyrd. It is a lot of music, but even if you have never listened to the Rail Band, this is not a bad place to start. Being the band that launched the careers of both Salif Keita and Mory Kanté, three double-disc anthologies is not excessive at all. As of this writing I only have the first two but they are both treasured items of my musical stash.

The centerpiece of this set is the opening track from which it takes its name, ‘Soundiata’ (also spelt Sondiata). The song is epic – not only in its length of 27 minutes, but in that its content is straight from Malian griout oral folk epics dealing with the founding dynasty of the thirteenth-century Mandingo empire. Its relaxed pace, gorgeous horn arrangements, hypnotic organ chords, and complex bass and percussion immediately grab the attention. In fact the adjectives “relaxed”, “gorgeous,” “hynotic,” and “complex” come to mind so often while listening to this collection that you can just imagine that I’ve written three or four entire paragraphs egregiously overusing them. Done imaging that? Ok, great. Also noteworthy is the fact that there is dialogic banter going on between singer Kanté and one of the band members across the 27 minutes of ‘Soundiata’ that I can’t understand a word of, and is no doubt important in some way. Except for the more uptempo ‘B’ section that happens a few times, the groove remains essentially unchanged until about 17 minutes in when they start to rock it out like an equatorial Yes and take the piece through several time signature and tempo changes. The song is captivating for the enthusiast of African music but its length is apt to lose a few casual listeners, coming as it does right at the beginning of the disc. It should also be noted that the second CD contains the confusingly-titled “New Version” of the same song. Having actually been recorded 3 years earlier, I am not sure what Stern’s Music intends by this, unless the title suffers from an overly literal translation of the French “nouvelle”, and what is meant to be expressed is that this is an ‘updated’ or ‘modern’ version of an old folk song. Both versions are influenced by the Afro-Cuban and merengue sounds popular in West Africa at the time, and even though the ‘new version’ (1972) is essentially sans drums, the opening introduction is heavily Latin. With all the great blogs from people who are actually knowledgeable about African Music (Comb&Razor, Omogod, Awesome Tapes..) rather than just dabble in it like I do, I should probably keep my speculation to a minimum.

There are a few other peculiarities that seem out of step of Stern’s usual high standards, including some rough sound quality even by African crate-digger criteria, and a blatant absence of the discography details that is the bread-and-butter of their ‘target market.’ The liner notes do a decent job of telling the story of the band, underwritten by the National Railways of Mali who needed a house band for their booming hotel, but they are not of the same quality as many of the other Sterns releases and at least 2 out of the 3 volumes use the same, brief text that attempts to cover twenty years of musical history in a couple of pages. I am always uncomfortable writing about music whose lyrics I don’t understand a word of, and feel that I should put a large neon disclaimer on all such things, but it would seem that Sterns also does not place much emphasis on lyrical content with the Rail Band. Aside from epic folkloric poetry, the rest of the tracks seem centered on the usual preoccupations of most post-colonial governments’ official discourse: praising the army, praising the workers, praising progress, praising democracy, praising the army again. The question of how much or how little control the band had over its lyrical content is something that is either willfully ignored or just considered unimportant by the people who put together this collection. In any event we should not expect any blistering social critiques from a band with a national/corporate sponsor, and allow ourselves to be content with the abundant pleasures of the music itself and its innovations. Which occasionally included FOUR guitarists. That’s right, FOUR. Another oddity is the inclusion of one sole track from the 1980s (which would seem to belong on Volume 3), however it manages to fit comfortably with the rest of the tracks reasonably well.


Lineups during the period of these recordings included the following musicians.

Trumpet, tenor and alto sax – Tidiani Koné
Vocals – Salif Keita
TImbales – Marius
Percussion – Abdouramane Koumaré
Guitars – Nabé Baba, Ousmane Sogodogo, Mamoutou Diakité


Vocals – Mory Kanté, Magan Ganessy, Djelimady Sissoko
Balafon – Mory Kanté
Drums – Pacheco
Bongos – Korobala
Percussion – Moussa Traoré, Abdouramane Koumaré
Trumpet – Sourakata Cissé
Tenor and alto sax – Tidiani Koné
Guitars – Djeliady Tounkara, Chiek Traoré, Mamoutou Diakité, Ousmane Sogodogo


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