b. c.1930, Guinea, West Africa, d. 15 June 2003. In the mid-40s Soumah began working in radio, eventually taking up a post at a remote station in the Fouta Diallo region of the country. There, he began playing the banjo and joined a group named Jovial Symphony. He also played mandolin before trying the clarinet from which he soon extended his multi-instrumental versatility to the saxophone family, including soprano, tenor and alto, the latter eventually becoming his instrument of choice. Although much of his early repertoire was drawn from local African music he also played dance music from other continents. Soon, however, he was drawn to the music of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong. Following Guinea’s independence in 1958, Soumah, in common with many other Guinean musicians, took a serious interest in the country’s traditional musical forms, becoming a member of the Sylli Orchestra and the Kelitigui National Orchestra. In his own group, Sex Tet, he blended into traditional Guinean music his adopted music, jazz, using many traditional instruments.
In 1988, Soumah attracted widespread attention through his performances at the first MASA (African Art and Entertainment Market) in Abidjan. Over the course of the following decade, he travelled extensively, appearing at several international festivals, including those in Limoges, Nantes, Taiwan and Bogota. He took advantage of this international travel to extend his musical knowledge, studying harmony and musical theory at the Academy of Dakar and at the International Music Centre in Paris, France. Owing to the success of 1996’s Matchowé, his reputation spread and the record became one of the most influential African jazz records. Among his compositions is the incidental music for the Circus Baobab’s spectacle, The Legend Of The Tambourinaire Monkey. Whether playing saxophone, in particular the alto, with surging vitality, or singing in his gruffly amiable manner, Soumah was a distinctive and innovative musician who fully incorporated the disparate yet linked musical styles of two continents.