1 Nov 2012

The Griot's Craft

Sekouba 'Bambino' Diabaté by Ken Braun
On the release of The Griot's Craft (STCD1117) in November 2012 

On CD  iTunes UK  iTunes US

Sékouba Diabaté is, as his surname suggests, a jeli. A jeli is a griot of the Mande people of West Africa; a special person who has inherited the responsibility of remembering history. From his parents and grandparents he learns Mande history and genealogy, and with practiced skill he recounts this knowledge in oratory, epic poetry and song, reminding listeners of the tragedies and glories of the past and the lessons to be applied to the present and the future. The Diabaté name (spelled Jobarteh in some countries) denotes one of the most celebrated West African jeli clans. 

Sékouba Diabaté was born and raised in northeastern Guinea, near the border with Mali, at the heart of the ancient Mande Empire, whose history goes back eight centuries, as does its canon of poems and songs. By the time he was 16 years old Sekouba was famous in his native region for his command of the canon and his strong, soaring voice. His reputation reached Conakry, the coastal capital of Guinea, and in 1983, when he was 19, he was asked to join Bembeya Jazz National, the pre-eminent modern Guinean band. Most of the members of Bembeya Jazz were in their 40s, so young Sékouba was dubbed Bambino – the Italian word for “baby”. Why Italian? He’s not sure, but Bambino has been his professional name ever since.

After eight years with Bembeya Jazz, Bambino embarked on a solo career. Producer Ibrahima Sylla brought him to Sterns, first to sing with Africando, the multinational salsa band, and then to record Kassa, an album of contemporary African pop. Soon after that CD’s 1997 release, I had the good fortune to hear Bambino in a more traditional mode. 

I was invited to a party in New York, given by the Guinean Ambassador to the United Nations in honour of the new Malian Ambassador to that august assembly. I should have known not to show up at 8 o’clock, regardless of what the invitation said: almost no one was there. Over the next couple of hours other guests arrived, slowly filling the ballroom with voluminous robes and headdresses in dazzling colours, making me feel conspicuously white and dull.

Eventually the host and the guest of honour entered and made their rounds of the room before giving speeches. It was nearly midnight when dinner was served, and it was only after the last dishes had been cleared away that musicians set up at one end of the room and began playing. Beautiful music – a koni (lute), a pair of koras (harps), and a pair of balas (xylophones) – but it was a long and stately piece that, following a rich meal, had a lulling effect. I wasn’t the only person who appeared to be dozing. 

Then suddenly Bambino strode onto the floor and the energy level in the place surged by a magnitude of ten (maybe eleven). He looked splendid in a shiny purple and gold robe. He needed no microphone to be heard resoundingly above the instruments in this large room full of people, even as the instrumentalists visibly and audibly turned their output up several notches. Everyone was transfixed.

After a rousing song that got the audience clapping rhythmically, Bambino shifted into an epic. Without understanding his Maninka words, I could see in his gestures and hear in the way he raised and then dramatically lowered his voice that he was telling a story. He had everyone’s rapt attention as he walked over to the ambassador from Mali and sang directly to him, the words whirling off his tongue with rising fervor until everyone burst into applause and the ambassador stood up and placed a handful of cash on Bambino’s shoulder. 

Bambino began every song with his arms stretched wide, as if to say “This is for all of you”. Then, well into the song, he would approach a man or a woman in the audience, a couple or a family with children, and fix his gaze on theirs. To me, an outsider, it felt almost too intimate and almost too bold, but, clearly, those being serenaded so magnificently felt privileged. Inevitably, out came the money – which, I believe, bespoke genuine appreciation. One gentleman in a finely-tailored European business suit pulled from his breast pocket not only a wad of banknotes but also a white handkerchief which he dabbed at his eyes as Bambino sang to him.

I had seen similar performances and gratuities many times in Africa, but never on such an advanced level. Here was a trueborn jeli at work in front of bona-fide aristocrats – people with long pedigrees, accustomed to employing jelis. A man at my table leaned toward me and said, sotto voce, "Bambino has done his research. Before he entered this room he must have looked at us and identified all the important families represented here tonight. He knows, better than they, all the great deeds done by their ancestors. That's what he's singing for all to hear."

Bambino’s diligence and skill paid off. Those were not single dollars that his assistant picked up from the floor, but $20, $50 and $100 bills, and by the evening’s end there were lots of them.

The next day Bambino (wearing jeans and a T-shirt now) showed up at Sterns. "I've bought a car," he said, "but I don't have enough money left to ship it to Conakry. I need $2,000. Can you help me?"

My colleagues and I went downstairs and out onto Broadway to see the car. It was a sky-blue Cadillac – not new, but big and fine. Back in my office I called my boss in London, who laughed and said, “Yes, yes, give him the money.” 

A couple of years later, when Bambino returned to New York to lend his voice again to Africando, I asked him about his car. He grinned and said "Everybody in Conakry knows Bambino's American car."

Ken Braun, New Jersey 2012

Players on The Griot's Craft

Sékouba “Bambino” Diabaté: lead vocal
Amie Dante, Mba Kouyaté, Alama Kanté, Mama Keïta: backing vocals
Djessou Mory Kanté: lead guitar
Kerfala Kanté: bass
Djely Mory Diawara: percussion
Kaou Kouyaté, Badie Tounkara: ngoni
Arouna Samake: kamele ngoni
Abdoulaye Koussougbe: percussion
Kaba Kouyaté: balafon
Kabinet Kanté: guitar
Papus Dioubaté: guitar, bass

23 Jul 2012


As we make digitally available for the first time some of Sterns Music's first ever releases we take a look back at those exciting times in the early eighties.

Sterns did not have the resources of Chris Blackwell's Island Records, but that did not deter the UK's first fledgeling record label devoting itself to popular African music from throwing everything we did have at the time into the mix. Stunning cover art from Kofi Ankobra, the son of radical white South Africans who grew up in Ghana and had studied art at Oshogbo, Nigeria, coincidentally the birthplace of Segun, and performances in the UK and Europe that were road-managed by Charles Easmon.

Keeping a 21-piece group on the road, comprising musicians who'd rarely been outside of Nigeria let alone to Europe, was a work of art in itself and the stories are legion. Needless to say it couldn't last, and despite the best efforts of Don Bay, Robert Urbanus and Charles at Sterns, it didn't. Nevertheless the two albums that Sterns released from this time – here, for digital release for the first time, each with extra tracks previously unreleased outside of Africa – are a testament to the energy of the times and surprisingly but gratifyingly, sound as fresh today as they did then. With current interest in West African music, it's good to note that at least as regards Nigeria, it hasn't always been “Fela! A New Musical”

In his own words co-founder of Sterns Music Charles Easmon dips into the past and remembers those heady days touring with Segun Adewale:

"Back in the early eighties, Nigerian juju music made its way into the international arena with the 1984 Island Records release of Synchro System by King Sunny Ade. European and US tours soon followed.  Back in Lagos, a new generation of musicians with a harder sound was rising to challenge the masters, King Sunny Ade, Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey, I.K.Dairo, and Prince Adekunle.

First among these was Segun Adewale. Prior to going solo, Segun had started with Adekunle’s band, left with singer Shina Peters to form the highly successful Shina Adewale, and finally split to do his own thing.

On signing with Sterns in 1984, Adewale’s rising popularity at home was due to the development of his own style, which he branded yo-pop (Yoruba Popular Music), a funkier, tougher sound.  In his own words, “ It took me a lot of time to put the new sound together. I studied funk, highlife, reggae, and rock. I was looking for something that could cross all the lines to make my music accepted in other parts of the world. When you don’t understand our language, but can dance to our rhythms, you are doing alright.  But the main thing we do is capitalize on the guitars (6 in all).  We’ve got wicked strings.  And my strikers, they strike bad.” Yo-pop at its best is captured on these 2 albums Play for Me and Ojo Je, re-released by Sterns digitally for the first time in July of 2012.

I had the good fortune to tour manage Segun and his 21-piece band on their first UK tour.  It gave me an insight into the world of juju music. The band was led and musically directed by the lead talking drummer, simply known as Captain, and there was a disciplined hierarchy below him. A guest of honour at our performance at Queen Elizabeth Hall in Edinburgh was the Nigerian Consul to Scotland and the embassy staff.   He came backstage prior to the performance, bearing gifts – a crate of whisky, a crate of brandy, and 6 crates of beer.  The imbibing of the gifts did not start until we were on the bus on our way back to London. Segun himself spent the entire journey fast asleep on the back seat. Meanwhile someone sang a line in Yoruba, someone else started a body beat.   One by one, they all joined in, and kept the singing going all the way to London. On arrival, I asked Segun how he had managed to sleep through it, he said it was no problem and that what I did not realize was that from a spontaneous beginning, a brand new song had been created, that juju music was all about transforming the energy of happiness into music. Sure enough, the new song was played for the first time to the public at our next show.  

Inspiration, spontaneity, fluidity, flexibility, and joy are all in the juju mix, and it is that which gives these classic albums their timeless quality."

Play for Me now available to download on iTunes:
UK Play For Me - Segun Adewale US Play For Me - Segun Adewale

Ojo Je now available to download on iTunes:
UK Ojo Je - Segun Adewale US Ojo Je - Segun Adewale

18 Apr 2012

Moussa Ngom and KSF Productions - Senegal

Moussa Ngom on iTunes US Moussa N'Gom UK Moussa N'Gom

With the international success of Youssou N'Dour, Senegal is well-known as a source for some of the most exciting and creative music that Africa can offer. But beyond the awareness of established stars such as Youssou, Baaba Maal, Ismaël Lô or Thione Seck, what's perhaps less well-understood is just how important to the internal economy and identity of the entire Sene-Gambian region, is its music as a commercial enterprise.

But while Senegal is hailed as one of the most stable nations in Africa, this stability has not meant that its music is immune from the very same problems that beset the industry globally. Producers have flourished and more recently wilted with alarming regularity as they try to keep pace with changing trends and technologies. One of the important record labels which emerged from Senegal’s home-grown music industry was KSF Productions.

The high-point of KSF Productions was probably during the 1990s and in that time they were responsible for some classic and influential recordings that helped forge a unique and proud West African sound. Recordings that, to date and despite their manifest success within the region, have had very little exposure outside.

A perfect example are the two releases from Moussa Ngom, 'Circulation Lamp Fall' and 'Gal Gui’ with which we kick off our exposure of this deep catalogue.

Born in The Gambia, Moussa was already a member of the group Sangamarr in the late 1960s when he was invited by his older brother Laye Ngom, to join Guelewar in the late 70s. Guelawar had picked up the torch of success from Gambia’s Ifang Bondi and with a psychedelic tinge to their music and the scarcity of original legitimate releases, have been ensured cult status amongst today's bloggers and crate-diggers.

But Moussa moved on and the mid-1980s found him in the company of fellow vocalists Momodou Maiga and the magnificent Omar Pene as a member of Super Diamono during perhaps their most dynamic and successful period. History is hindsight and in those days, based on the music alone, it would have been a brave bet that chose between Youssou's Etoile and Omar Pene's Diamono for future international recognition.   

Moussa left Super Diamano in 1988 and courtesy of an anonymous commentator on YouTube we pick up the story around 1995 when:

Moussa made an historic decision to link up with the Ensemble Lyrique Traditionnel du Senegal. These musicians were the resident traditional orchestra at the National Theatre Daniel Sorano in central Dakar.

The recording featured high resolution digital recordings of some of the best players of traditional instruments in Senegal. No one had heard the bass balafon sounding like this before. It simply blew the whole of Senegal away. Everywhere you went by taxi with the radio on you heard the track Circulation Lamp Fall as you attempted to navigate the 'emboutilage' of the Dakar traffic.

It started a trend for other modern musicians to record in the same traditional style that continues up to the present day as an acoustic counterpoint to the modern electric 'marimbalax' style."

Moussa had begun his career singing the 'kassak' songs performed at traditional male circumcision ceremonies and he once remarked that it was only after returning to this traditional style that he had his first hit, 'Circulation Lamp Fall', on his own ticket.

Today Moussa Ngom's status in Senegal is assured and he has been awarded one of the highest honours in the country, the 'Chevalier of the National Order of The Lion'. Like the more well-known, at least in the West, singer Cheikh Lô, Moussa is also a Mouride or more specifically a 'Baye Fall', a follower of Ibra Fall a.k.a. Lamp Fall ('the light of Mouridism').

Les Baye Fall huile sur toile (c) Mary Baird-Smith
The Mouride are a Sufi brotherhood with their headquarters in Touba a couple of hundred kilometres inland from Dakar, although devoutly Muslim the Baye Fall sect smoke marijuana and can abstain from work just so long as they walk the hot dusty streets chanting praise to Lamp Fall while collecting money for the cause. With their long Rasta-like locks or 'strong hair', wooden bowls for donations and wearing a patchwork of multicoloured cloth known as N'diaxas, they are a visible presence on the streets in Senegal and Moussa reputedly adds to this patchwork by wearing odd shoes. Always the same style, but in contrasting colours.

In another parallel, intentionally or otherwise, of Rastafarianism, Moussa is regarded as a spiritually-inspired musician but with a strong political consciousness. Perhaps there is no equivalent in our popular music of the West, but what is clear is that Moussa Ngom's music is deeply felt, deeply rooted and immensely popular.

Iain Scott with thanks to Paul Hayward & Mark Hudson