Bembeya Jazz National

Defi & Continuite

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This 2LP/1CD collection combines the 1978 and 1982 albums that marked Bembeya Jazz's return to recording after the 1973 death of lead singer/founder Aboubacar Demba Camara in a car accident stopped the band in its tracks. Lead guitarist Sekou Diabate emerged as the new key member but any disruption in the group's music compared to an early ‘70s release like 10 Ans de Succes isn't readily apparent.

Bembeya hails from Guinea in West Africa and generally its Manding swing thing isn't as rhythmically complex as mbalax from Senegal, as clearly rumba-derived as early Zairian music, or driven by the circular guitar melodies of soukous. The closest reference point may be the stately, melancholy flavor of ‘70s Malian music (but without as much Islamic vocal influence) and the directness of Bembeya's music is quite appealing, as reflected nicely in the interlocked guitar melodies to the opener "N'Kanunuwe."

The arrangements are loaded with smart shifts in focus and savvy attention to detail. Wooly-sounding full horns and massed vocals create an aura of Malian majesty on "N'Lanyo," before a brief percussion section feature triggers a fine Diabate solo. On "Toure," it's a soprano sax that launches him and a fat trombone smoothes over his spiky lead on "Dya Dya." Tart horns chip in with chiming guitars on the finale to "Mussofing," the uptempo "N'zema" rips along behind massed vocals and rapid-fire bass riff, while the exuberant, rumba-rooted "Dya Dya" just whips it up behind driving drums from the start.

Obviously, the band isn't content to just find a great riff or groove and ride it, although it might have been a tempting option with a guitarist as accomplished as Diabate on hand. "Diamond Fingers" is his nickname but it's the inventive, unexpected phrasing that grabs your ear during "Toure," and continues through the off-kilter solo to "Dya Dya." The upward swoops and trills he throws into his solo on "Akukuwe" are pretty amazing and the whole thing sounds like he's having a conversation with himself. Yearning sustained notes finish his solo on "Tentemba," a homage to Bembeya's fallen leader marked again by majestic melancholy and savvy arrangement touches.

The main shortcoming to Défi & Continuité is the uninformative lines notes and absence of musician credits. The recording quality is fine for the era and there's 70 minutes of first-rate music from a major West African pop band in its prime with a pretty exceptional soloist to focus on. Pretty hard to argue with that, whether you're already a fan or a neophyte looking for a good value-for-money introduction.

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