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Legendary Guinea-Bissau Band Begins European Tour

  • Kate Thomas

The eight members of Super Mama Djombo, including founder Ze Manel Fortes and composer Atchutchi, walk through the streets of Bissau's old town, Guinea-Bissau, May 2, 2012. (K. Thomas/VOA)

The eight members of Super Mama Djombo, including founder Ze Manel Fortes and composer Atchutchi, walk through the streets of Bissau's old town, Guinea-Bissau, May 2, 2012. (K. Thomas/VOA)

BISSAU - In the late 1960s, Guinea-Bissau's legendary musical group, Super Mama Djombo, was founded by seven-year-old children at a summer scout camp. The band grew up during independence from Portugal, becoming famous for its revolutionary vibe and pro-independence lyrics and coming to symbolize the struggle for freedom from colonial rule. Since then, Super Mama Djombo has sung its way through Guinea-Bissau's repeated political crises, coups, counter-coups and civil war. As the most recent coup on April 12 was underway, the band was re-forming and rehearsing for a European tour, despite facing setbacks caused by deep political instability.

Founded on the ideals of hard work, freedom and laughter, Super Mama Djombo, is named after a magical Guinea-Bissau spirit that was said to protect clandestine revolutionary fighters deep in the jungle.

As an independent Guinea-Bissau emerged, so did Super Mama Djombo. With its enchanting harmonies and anthemic songs, the group became the voice of the nation, singing about transitioning out of the independence war and into a phase of building a new country.

"We're not going to cry anymore," they sang. "The people of Guinea-Bissau are like termite mounds," they sung. "Knock us down and we'll rise back up."

Almost 40 years on, after continuous political turmoil, repeated coups and political assassinations in Guinea-Bissau, Super Mama Djombo is about to begin a European tour - the group's first since independence.

Brian King, an American who lives in the capital, Bissau, is the group's producer.
He says that just like during the independence war, there have been political hurdles to getting the show on the road.

In the wake of the coup on April 12, many things ground to a halt in Guinea-Bissau.

“Government stopped functioning and the central bank stopped functioning, so we couldn't access the funds. There was a good 10 days when we were thinking that the entire thing was done," said King. "One interesting result of the coup was that suddenly we had access to the lead composer and the band leader, who was a provincial governor and essentially had to leave his post because the military was taking over functions of the provincial government. And, so he's been able to come to rehearsals and I think it's really actually helped in that aspect of getting the band in shape and recapturing some of the original feel."

Ze Manel Fortes is one of Guinea-Bissau's most legendary musicians. Just seven years old when he formed Super Mama Djombo with friends at a scout camp, Fortes grew up in the band.

In the beginning, Guinea-Bissau's PAIGC party, which led the country to independence, backed Super Mama Djombo and the band toured with the president.
Decades later, Fortes says he is proud to take the revitalized band to Europe. But he says many of the founding members are no longer here.

A new line-up is composed of several younger members as well as some of the original musicians.

"It is a great responsibility to stay with these youngsters and to pass onto them, little by little, what was Mama Djombo before and what is Mama Djombo now. I think they take it deeply and they are proud of it," Fortes stated.

Fernando Correia is the band's solo guitarist and one of the newer members.

Before joining the band, Correia was part of a group called Freaky Sound. In addition to composing their own work, Freaky Sound members played in bars and clubs as a Super Mama Djombo covers band.

He says he's honored to be a part of the new line-up.

"Guinea-Bissau is known in the world as a place where we have only militaries and coups d'etat, many bad things," Correia noted. "But with Mama Djombo we try to show another side of Guinea-Bissau - the good parts and positive Guinea-Bissau."

The members are keen to project a more accurate image of Guinea-Bissau than the one that often flashes across their television screens. They say they hope the tour will show people that Guinea-Bissau's loudest sound is not that of gunfire, but that of music.

King says the songs composed by band leader Atchutchi are etched into the minds of Bissau-Guineans. They include big band marches, Cuban-style rhythms and songs in all of Guinea-Bissau's indigenous languages.

Among the repertoire are sadder tracks, such as "Djan Djan," which was written about a ship on which Atchutchi and his family fled Guinea-Bissau for Senegal during the civil war in 1998.

Producer King says work with Super Mama Djombo is a work of love. "I like to think of Mama Djombo as the band that I fell in love with 16 years ago, that was this band that was from this effervescent, euphoric period right after independence. The aesthetic was a little bit socialist as well. It was a group in which you did not feel like anybody was trying to stand out," he said. "It didn't have a front man or woman. It was a group where you felt this collective labor going on."

But Super Mama Djombo was never just about labor.

The band's rehearsals, often conducted outdoors beneath palm trees and a starry sky, are full of laughter and energy.

And, Guinea-Bissau's post-independence euphoria is ingrained in Super Mama Djombo's harmonies.

Super Mama Djombo's European tour may be a new resurgence for the band.

When on stage in France and Portugal this summer, the band members will sing about political struggles, about social and economic problems and about love.

"No canta, no diverti, no contra imperialista," they'll sing. "Let's sing, let's have fun, let's struggle."

It may be 40 years since the band was formed, but their message to Guinea-Bissau and to the watching world is as relevant as ever.