Bembeya Jazz National

webGuinée/Musique moderne

Leo Sarkisian. Voice of America.
Promoteur de la musique guinéenne moderne
Leo & Rita Sarkisian
Leo and Rita Sarkisian

Leo Sarkisian, now a legendary Voice of America host, programmer, and cultural ambassador. In the late 1950s, Leo was recruited by an Hollywood record label called Tempo International to travel and record music in far-flung locations. His work begun in Afghanistan, but soon, as African countries began to achieve independence, Tempo moved Leo to West Africa where he began his work in Ghana. In 1959, he moved to Guinea, now under the presidency of the youngSekou Toure. Leo wound up making the very first recording of what would become Bembeya Jazz. Here, in Leo’s own words, is how it happened.

My boss said, “Okay, I’ve made arrangements with the Guinea government for you to go there.” So we drove, my wife and I. From Ghana, we went up into Upper Volta, went over into the southern part of Mali and went in through Kankan, the back door. We got to the border. They looked at my passport and said, “This visa’s no good.” I said, “What do you mean?” Anyhow we went through this. So they said, “You’ll have to go on to Conakry and let’s see what the government is going to do.” So they put a soldier in our jeep and we traveled together down all the way to Conakry. We went to the Defense Ministry, which was in charge of security at that time, and the Minister of Defense and Security was Fodeba Keita, who started that first Ballets Africains that came to the United States.
So he said, “I don’t know where your company got the idea that you could come over here and start recording our music.” You know, he still had that nationalistic feeling: “This is our music and these foreign companies are coming and exploiting into Africa.” To their minds, it was like the old French companies and the British who would go down and make recordings for sale commercially. So they still had this distrust of foreigners. But we made friends. He said, “Let me extend your visa. At least you can visit our country while you’re here and you can listen to some of our music. But I don’t think you can stay here and record.” So I said, “Okay.” So I came into town and I got a little apartment. I just went ahead and rented an apartment. And I looked around, and there was a little office right next to the Swiss Embassy, right downtown, that was empty. And the French landlord from my apartment said, “You know, that place is empty. It doesn’t cost very much. We can get you that at a low price and you can keep all your equipment there.” So I rented this office, and set up all my equipment. I put on my Ghanain tapes and started editing them, just going there every day.
About three weeks later, a man showed up. He said, “I’m from the Ministry of Information, Mr Diop.” He sent his car and said he would like to talk to me. This was the head of broadcasting, Alasane Diop, who later on, they killed. But anyhow, heck of a nice guy. He himself was an engineer, and he said, “I’m happy that you’re here. We are now ready to work together.” You see, they watched me for these three weeks and saw what I was doing. And there was a need for me, because the French had left Radio Conakry with nothing. There was only one other technician who spoke very little English—a couple of words. They had two broken-down Ampexes. That’s all they had.
So first, I helped get the two Ampexes going, and they started putting some programs on the air. And then the minister said: — “You know, in the mornings; you can come early, because in the morning, I have all my staff gather.”
This was their morning staff meeting with the Radio Director, the Program Director and all his information people. I’d go there and sit next to him and watch them do all their staff meeting every day. And they took a liking to me.
Then the minister said:
— “You know, we have never really done a collection. There are places that we really haven’t recorded any music at all. I’m going to assign my best technician.” And then he says, “There’s an old man here who is a father of griots, the famous Diabate—Sidiki Diabate. He’s going to be with you all the time. He knows all the musicians. He used to be a government official in most of the regions. Sidiki Diabate was the father of Papa Diabate, the guitar player. And his brother, Sekou ‘Docteur’ Diabate is a guitar player also.
So we started going from region to region making recordings. I recorded the famous Orchestre Beyla. They were just being formed in Beyla. Sekou Diabate was there. Then they called themselves Orchestre Bembeya. But when they were first getting it together, that was in Beyla. Then we went all the way down to Nzerekore and did a lot of folk and traditional music there, and we went up in Kankan. Anyhow, we recorded all these various ivory tusk horn groups, Kisidugu, little guitar groups and all that.
And Sekou Toure took a big interest in this. And of course, after our first trip, Diabate took me and he says:
— “Sekou Toure is very much interested in what we’re doing and he wants to help.”
So he gave his little plane, his aeroplane, private plane. He said, “Any time you want to go to a region, my plane is there.” With a Russian pilot. Again, at that time, the Russians were actually in charge. I mean, they were running everything. But Sekou Toure used to tell me personally:
— “You know,” he said, “It’s only the American press that calls me a communist. I’m not. I’m an Africanist.”
And he wouldn’t let the Russians go into the radio station. That was a no-no for them. He made sure. And he let me. And the Russians were going crazy again. Unbelievable, you know. Here’s this American over there going traveling around in the interior of the country and everything. So I was having a ball.
And Kandia Kouyate was the lead singer, and we helped to form the first National Folkloric Orchestra. We worked together. I started teaching the singers and the musicians what microphones were all about and how to use them, where to stand and all that. And we got a couple of more technicians and showed them how to set up microphones for vocals, where to put the microphones for the instruments and the drums so that we’d get a good sound.
And with Diabate, we gave a list of names of the best musicians that we had located throughout the country. Then Sekou Toure would give the order. He would bring those musicians. Wherever we found a good singer or a guitar player, he would bring them in. They got a place to live and clothes. And they had to come every day and rehearse. That was their job. They were getting paid now as musicians for the first time. So Sekou Toure actually did that for the country. But he had a very important mission also. The purpose behind all this, he said:
— “I want people in this country to think that they are no longer a Fula, or a Mandinka, or a Malinke, or a Soussou—They are all Guinean.” He said, “We will do this with the music.” And there were all these nationalistic songs. Of course, a lot of them were singing about him

Leo eventually developed a friendly relationship with Sekou Toure. When Toure tried to stop foreign music from being played on the radio, Leo had the nerve to joke with the president that the VOA would be very happy about this because now everybody would stop listening to Radio Guinea and started listening to the Voice of America. “He just smiled,” recalled Leo. “He probably knew it was the truth.” It was a move Toure couldn’t really carry through. The radio stopped playing Western music and all the orchestras began to compose songs on their own folkloric themes. “I remember Bembeya when I went to Beyla, they were practicing a number called Wassoulou, an old Malinke hunter’s song. You can feel it. It’s real folkloric and yet it was arranged for an orchestra. I like it. I think it was a good move.” At the same time, after he left Guinea, Leo saw what happened as Sekou Toure became more and more paranoid and violent. Looking back, he has no illusions about Toure.

“He killed my best friend, Fodeba Keita. He threw Alasane Diop into jail. He said that there was a conspiracy building up against him. Now Karim Bangoura, who became minister of Information and Broadcasting after they put Alasane into jail, later became Ambassador to the United States in Washington. Now while he was in Washington, Sekou Toure thought that he was making a conspiracy against to overthrow him. So he was brought back and killed. Then there were a bunch of young intellectuals who had studied in Paris. So after Independence, a lot of these guys were given nice jobs in the government. A number of these also disappeared or were killed. This was the intelligensia. He did away with them.
He was ruthless and he knew that there were conspiracies against him. And he was a womanizer. In fact, you know what I had the nerve to tell him, and he got the biggest kick out of it. When I had my first exhibition, I had about 60 full-sized portraits of Guinean women. [Sexy stuff at that.] When he came to see the exhibit, he said, “My God, they’re all women. You’re getting all the beauty of the women over here. Why?” I said, “I like women like you do.” My friends from the radio station were standing there. They wouldn’t dare say that to him, but they all got the biggest kick out of it. He just smiled. He trusted me so much that every year when he had the big PDG party, I used to go with the technicians and set up all the microphones for him and all the congress. He knew exactly what I was doing there every day.
Anyway, while I was still there in Conakry [in 1963, the American ambassador came and he said, “I have a visitor coming who wants to meet you.” And a couple of days later, he sent a messenger and said, “The ambassador will be coming here this morning to your home with a visitor.” So my wife prepared a little luncheon, and there was a knock on the door. We opened the door, and there, just lighting a cigarette, was Edward R. Murrow
Murrow was there on behalf of President Kennedy to ask Leo to join Voice of America. Another chapter in Leo’s remarkable story was about to begin…