Female spirit of independence

A couple of years ago I traveled to Guinea-Bissau for work. I knew a little bit about the country before going since some of the work I was doing was related to projects being implemented in the capital of Bissau and two other regions of the country. I loved it, although I would still say I know very little about it.

A year before going I can confess that didn’t know anything about it, other than it was in West Africa and that they spoke Portuguese. To my disappointment the second of my “well documented facts” was really only half-true since even though Portuguese is the official language most people speak creole or in some case the language of their specific ethnic group (of which there are plenty of…)

My first contact with (good) African music goes back to when I was 19 or 20, and it was thanks to my uncle who I talked about briefly in another post when I mentioned he got me hooked on Neil Young thanks to the album Harvest. He’s probably the most wide-spread music fan I know. He likes music from all over the world, has a huge collection on his computer and is always trying out new artists from all sorts of genders. To his benefit I must say he’s got pretty good taste.

So it was him who some random weekend introduced me to few well-known artists which I’d never heard of, such as Habib Koité and Amadou et Mariam, both from Mali, or Youssou N’Dour from Senegal. They were all pretty good. It wasn’t my favorite genre, but definitely music worth exploring and great for branching out every now and then.

When my work lead me to learn a little more about Guinea-Bissau I wondered if any good artists had ever come out of there. I had not fucking clue. I think I even asked my uncle, he had no fucking clue. I later learned that Guinea-Bissau, mostly because it’s extremely poor, is a country that is often overlooked, and it’s very hard for elements of its culture to be showcased at the international level. Music being a clear example.

Although to my surprise, after a little research I found out that in the last 50 years (or so) there have been a few artists which have made it out of Guinea-Bissau and have been recognized internationally. One of those is the band Super Mama Djombo, which I discovered after watching a documentary on medical evacuations taking place in Guinea-Bissau. The film was well made, it did a good job shedding light on the severe health situation in the country while at the same time integrating cultural aspects like local dancing and, most of all, music. One of the songs in the soundtrack was titled Baliera, which even though in the movie it’s performed by a young artist I tracked it back to Super Mama Djombo, the original composers and a band whose story is very interesting.

The band was formed in the mid-sixties when most of the members were kids at a boy-scout camp, later growing up to record their first album in the seventies. Their name, the ‘Mama Djombo’ part, is that of a female spirit that was popular among the beliefs of independence fighters at the time. Guinea-Bissau gained independence in 1974 and the band grew in popularity while becoming politically active. After a very successful career, extraordinary by Guinea-Bissau standards, the group separated in 1986… but reunited in 2008 to release a new album called Ar Puro. The song Baliera is from that album and it’s pretty damn good. I recommend giving it a chance, push through the first 10 seconds (which sound like any random African song) and see if you like this electric folky-rythmic, at one point jazzy, tune… recorded in Iceland, but straight out of Guinea-Bissau.

I couldn’t find the lyrics and I don’t speak creole. So no lyrics in this post, hopefully a song you like:

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13 thoughts on “Female spirit of independence

  1. Great post. I have been to Africa a couple of times but never to the west, barring Namibia (which is still classified as southern Africa). Some of the music coming from that nation is inspired and inspiring. So much better than top 40 stuff in a lot of cases.

  2. I am not particularly familiar with African music, although I occasionally hear it on the “Continental Drift” show on WNUR-FM Evanston-Chicago. I enjoyed this song, and it sounds like some songs that I hear from Israel. The saxophone added a nice touch to it.

  3. I really enjoyed your post! As a Nigerian and West African it makes me proud to see that people outside of our continent can enjoy our music. My only issue was with the following statement: “I recommend giving it a chance, push through the first 10 seconds (which sound like any random African song)”. What is your definition of “any random African song”? Africa is made up of over 50 countries and estimated 2000 different languages. I have had the opportunity to live in different parts of the African continent and I can assure you that there are very few similarities in what can be thought of as “random African style”. It often bothers me when people use the word African in such a general form.

    • Thanks for commenting, I completely understand why the line struck a nerve and why it could have bothered you. What I was trying to express was that the song doesn’t actually get into the song per se until ten seconds into it. It’s just the vocalist saying a few lines a capela-ish and the melody doesn’t kick in until after the 10 seconds. Since not many people read the full post, and those who do don’t always click on the music links, I wanted to encourage people who had clicked on the link to push through the first 10 seconds, because they have nothing to do with the rest of the song. The first 10 seconds I feared could lead people to stop listening, so I wanted to try and avoid doing that. I realize there are many styles, languages and rhythms in music across Africa, but given that it’s just the vocalist on his own, to the untrained such as myself the first 10 seconds seem easily mistaken as “arbitrary” and hard to identify with any particular style, genre or nationality in particular. At least for me, which like I said, I have no idea what the vocalist is saying and I would’ve happily cut that bit from the song.

      All the best!

      • I completely understand and thank you for clarifying what you meant. It can be tricky, I know.

        Thank you for your great post though. I will try and listen to the song!

  4. Really interesting post. I just discovered your blog thanks to your “Like” on one of my posts (I hoped you enjoyed the ride by the way). As African and as a music fan, I was very happy to discover this group which I had never heard about. Great post, well written and thanks for your interest to bits of our African Culture. Also say thank you to your Uncle for his openess of mind. He seems to be a wonderful individual. Hugs. A.

  5. For music from Mali, try Vieux Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté. The former is a guitarist and has been compared to Hendrix in the past, but that’s not why you should try him, especially his latest, Mon Pays. Diabaté plays the Malian harp and it’s amazingly beautiful, restful music.

    For something halfway in between, if you haven’t seen the film Bela Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart, don’t waste any more time to see what happens when Fleck decided to take the banjo back to its roots in Africa. The soundtrack album is awesome, too, but see the film first.

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