Wamato - Les Amazones de Guinée

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Les Amazones de Guinée
Sterns (www.sternsmusic.com)

Ahmed Sékou Touré, the leader of Guinea's liberation struggle against French colonial rule and president of the independent African nation from 1958 until his death in 1984, remains a controversial and polarizing figure. Revered as a freedom fighter by revolutionaries in Africa and elsewhere, he later was reviled as a dictator who trampled on human rights and mismanaged Guinea's economy.

Touré's one-party regime undeniably deserves the criticism. But it's hard to argue with the results of his cultural policy, which he called authenticité. Guinea's president made culture central to his government's nation-building program. Artists, and especially musicians, were encouraged to create works that were modern in style but rooted in African tradition. Authenticité spawned such great bands as Bembeya Jazz, Keletigui and his Tambourinis, the Horoya Band and Les Balladins. But I can't imagine Touré being prouder of any Guinean musicians than the women of Les Amazones de Guinée.

The band was originally called the Women's Orchestra of the Guinean Militia, and the members indeed all were soldiers. (Some still are, with titles like "Commandant" and "Capitaine.") They made their first and still unreleased recording in 1961, as an acoustic band. Au coeur de Paris, recorded 21 years later in the old colonial power's capital, was their first album as Les Amazones. Sekou Touré was still alive at the time, and the propagandistic side of authenticité is evident in tracks like "PDG (Parti Démocratique de Guinée)," a praise song for the president's political party.

But Les Amazones' debut also displayed their feminism, in songs that urged African women to reject patriarchal tradition and claim their place in post-colonial society.

Les Amazones, notes Pierre René Worms of Radio France Internationale, "set the standard for female groups in post-independent Africa; a symbol of African woman's emancipation, they remain a rarely imitated example."

Now, 26 years later, we have Les Amazones' second album, Wamato, and it is a beauty, easily the equal of the recent acclaimed release by another veteran but far better known African band, Orchestra Baobab's Made in Dakar. Recorded in Bamako, Mali, in the same studios used by Ali Farka Toure and Oumou Sangaré, among other notables, Wamato grabs the listener from the jubilant cry of "ah-hah!" that opens the album.

The production, by Afropop veteran Ibrahima Sylla, is clean and unobtrusive, putting the focus on the guitar-driven ensemble and the amazing vocalists who front it. There are 11 core Amazones, some of whom replaced original members who died or retired. They are augmented by a dozen guest vocalists and instrumentalists, all women. But the music, thanks to Sylla and chef d'orchestre Commandant Salématou Diallo, on bass, never sounds cluttered or cacophonous.

The title track has the three main vocalists, Fatoumata N'Gady Keita, Daloba Keita, and M'Mah Sylla, trading verses while the guitarists, Yaya Kouyaté on lead, N'Sira Tounkara on rhythm, spin intertwined lines around them. And voices and guitars are the stars here, notwithstanding the tight horn section and surging percussion. Each of the vocalists has a distinctive timbre, roughly corresponding to Western categories of vocal range -- one low and earthy (contralto), another mid-range (mezzo), another high and strident (soprano). Each singer has a strong individual vocal profile and a powerful presence.

As if having three terrific lead singers wasn't enough, Les Amazones supplement them with stellar guests -- Fatou Nylon Barry, a full-throated, exuberant wonder on "Ndaren," and Les Zawagui de Macenta, a trio of Valerie Keba, Helen Pivie and Blandine Komessa. The two tracks featuring the marvelous trio, "Deni Wana" and "Zawi," are both exceptional, but they really kill on the latter, a joyous welcome-back to the Les Amazones. "Alhamdoulilah," a rhythmic tour de force, is a showcase for the sharply contrasting but complementary voices of M'Mah Sylla, cutting yet supple, and Fatou Nylon Barry, deeper and more rough-edged.

Much of Wamato's considerable pleasure comes from the interplay of the voices and the guitars, the pealing, dancing guitars of Yaya Kouyaté and N'Sira Tounkar. "Be Ni Son" features some of their most captivating work. "Meilleurs Voeux," a wish for a Happy New Year, begins as a syrupy ballad sung in French by M'Mah Sylla. But, like Guinea shaking off its colonial masters, the band shifts into a quicker tempo, changes the rhythm, and surges ahead, with Yaya Kouyaté's guitar and the horns calling and responding to each other.

It's amazing that a band that has released only two records in nearly 50 years would sound so vibrant and confident, as if they'd never left the scene. One can only hope that Wamato, their superb return, means we'll be hearing more from Los Les Amazones de Guineé, and that we won't have to wait another 26 years for the follow-up. - George De Stefano

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