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The Four Lives of Bambino


01/12/2004 - 

The Guinean 'griot' Sekouba Bambino is one of the most prolific artists on the African music scene today. Bambino joined legendary African band Bembeya Jazz in 1979, then went on to make his name as a 'salsero' performing with Africando from 1999. What's more Bambino, who also sings with the group Mandekalou, still finds time to manage his own solo career! The multi-faceted star recently celebrated fifteen years in the music business with a concert at the People's Palace in Conakry. RFI Musique caught up with him and asked him how he felt about his anniversary.

"It's really important for me to mark fifteen years in the music world," Bambino declares, "The concert was a special one-off occasion where I could celebrate with fans and retrace my career to date." The talented singer/griot/salsero has managed to pursue a career on no less than four fronts, delving into an impressive variety of musical styles along the way. "I feel comfortable adapting to all kinds of musical 'sauces'," he says, You know that old saying about music crossing frontiers? Well, I'd say that's something that's very me! Whatever group I'm performing with – be it Bembeya, Africando or Mandekalou – I can whip up the musical 'sauce' required."

Bambino is undisputedly one of the best Mandingo singers on the current scene. Following the example of his "big brothers" Youssou Ndour and Salif Keïta, Bambino has pursued a multi-musical career, juggling a hectic schedule of tour dates and studio sessions with three different groups, not to mention his own solo commitments. Born in 1964, Bambino launched his career at an exceptionally early age, becoming the fourth singer with the group Mandekono (based in his native village of Siguiri, in the north of Guinea). The young prodigy was just eight years old at the time.

In 1979, Bambino's talent came to the attention of the Guinean president Sékou Touré when the latter watched his live rendition of Mandjou (a song Salif Keïta had written for the statesman who has done so much to help his country's music stars). "Ahmed Sékou Touré became a big fan of mine," explains Bambino, "and he ended up asking the group Bembeya Jazz if they'd take me on. He announced the news to me in a telegram he sent to Siguiri and then I came to Conakry to meet my 'uncles.' They greeted me like one of the family, adopting me as the baby of the group."

Bambino spent ten years working with Bembeya Jazz, honing his vocal skills with the group. "I'm actually still a member of Bembeya, " he points out, "I never officially quit the group at all. I made four albums with Bembeya and then went on to go solo. But I have to admit, I put out my first album under the name 'Sekouba Bambino Diabaté from Bembeya.' That album, called Bonya, ended up selling pretty well, in fact." Le Destin, Samba Gaye and Kassa soon followed in the wake of Bonya. Then came the famous Sinikan, a more electro-style album which included a surprise remake of the James Brown classic It’s A Man’s Man's Man's World. Bambino also recorded two albums in support of the Guinean football team, the "Syli National" (whom he always turns out to cheer on in the African Cup of Nations). And now the Guinean 'griot' is back in the music news with Quinzième anniversaire (Fifteenth Anniversary), an album released throughout West Africa. "The album's a mix of old favourites and new songs recorded in more of an acoustic vein," Bambino explains, "I felt I had to bring out an album to mark my anniversary. I wanted to keep fans happy and I knew they'd be expecting something new on this occasion."

A place on the world stage

While his solo career continues to go from strength to strength, Bambino has also been busy performing as one of the lead singers in the African salsa band Africando. "What happened was I was busy working on my album Kassa in Paris," he says, "And then, out of the blue I got this phone call from Boncana Maïga and Ibrahima Sylla, Africando's arranger and producer. Sylla happened to be my producer as well. Anyway, the pair had decided it was time to open the group up to other artists and make it a truly Pan-African band. Up until that point, Africando had been a purely Senegalese group. But in Wolof the word 'Africando' means 'Africans coming together.' I told Maïga and Sylla I was willing to give things a try and I ended up going out to New York to work with Africando. I guested on Gombo Salsa and Baloba, but the moment I really became a fully signed-up member of the group was on the album Betece in 1999." Since that moment, Bambino has established himself as one of the main 'salseros' in the band, performing alongside Medoune Diallo (from Senegal), Amadou Balaké (from Burkina Faso) and Rony Barro (from America).

Bambino's participation in the group Mandekalou opened a fourth chapter in his career. "Music knows no borders," he proclaims, "and right now we're fighting for African music to help it gain its rightful place on the world stage. And I happen to think all sorts of musical styles should be represented. I'm fighting on all fronts, with my solo career and my work with Bembeya. I'm there representing my country with Mandingo music. Then there's my work with Africando which presents another side of things: that's to say, Afro-Cuban music with an African spin. And these days we've also got Mandekalou, a group who aim to represent the whole Mandingo empire – from Senegal to Burkina Faso. I admit it's not always easy juggling my various commitments, but somehow I manage. I feel I have to try out all these different musical styles – that way, surely one of them will make me world-famous!"

Sekouba Bambino Quinzième anniversaire (Syllart Productions) 2004

Pierre  René-Worms

Translation : Julie  Street