Reporter's notebook: in the footsteps of legendary Guinea-Bissau band Super Mama Djombo
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When Guinea-Bissau became independent from Portugal in 1974, a wave of optimism washed over the country, epitomised by the legendary band Super Mama Djombo. FRANCE 24 tracked down some of its band members in Bissau.
The planes that fly from Dakar to Bissau are rather small. Guinea-Bissau – with a population of less than 2 million – is not a famous tourist destination.
But when I arrive with my colleague Sarah Sakho we find a pleasant, peaceful, old-fashioned town. Restaurants in antiquated buildings serve grilled calamari. No booming economy here. It’s one of the world’s poorest nations. The main export is cashew nuts.
About fifteen years ago it used to be one of the main drug trafficking hubs in West Africa. It’s less the case now, but the illegal business has not vanished altogether. One day in broad daylight in the city centre a local journalist says to me, “You see that man who just walked by, he’s a notorious drug lord who’s wanted by the United States…” The journalist knows the topic well, he’s Allen Yero Embalo. He works in Bissau for AFP and RFI, and his own investigations on drug trafficking have got him in real trouble. He was threatened, and in 2007 he had to flee to France for four years.
But we are not here to report on South American cocaine cartels. We are here to meet the musicians from the legendary band Super Mama Djombo.
The band rose to fame in the 1970s with its anti-colonial stance when Guinea-Bissau became independent from Portugal in 1974 after a decade-long armed struggle. It was led by Amilcar Cabral, known as the African Che Guevara. Cabral headed the PAIGC, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde. He was assassinated in 1973 by members of his own movement. Portugal’s secret police reportedly encouraged his killing as it was aware of tensions between Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde party members. Both of Cabral’s parents were from Cape Verde. In 1974 his brother, Luis Cabral, became Guinea-Bissau’s first president.
Luis Cabral boosted Super Mama Djombo’s career. He often asked the musicians to accompany him on official visits to Cuba, Mozambique, Portugal or the former Soviet Union. “Sometimes he ordered his ministers to get off his plane so we could go with him,” smiles Adriano Ferreira, who’s known as “Atchutchi”. Today he’s a balding leader of the PAIGC, but forty years ago he was the composer of most of the band’s hits.
Despite being close to the president, the orchestra did not hesitate to write songs that were critical of the new elite and its corrupt ways post-independence. Some of these songs even got them thrown briefly into jail -- like their hit Dissan Na M’Bera, which talks about government vehicles that drive too fast and don’t let ordinary people walk peacefully on the roadside.
Among the four band members we met up with, Atchutchi is probably the one who’s better off. The singer, Dulce Neves, is a civil servant. She also tries to keep up her solo career. In the port of Bissau she remembers the orchestra’s heyday with nostalgia. “It was a pleasure, a joy. The atmosphere was good after the war, after our victory. Within the band most of us, nearly all of us, had entered politics and clandestine organisations,” she says.
Ze Manel, a colourful character, and the band’s drummer, spent two decades in California. He returned to Bissau a few years ago to set up a recording studio. But the optimism that prevailed in the post-independence era has gone.
“It was better back then, we were proud, there was a real state. A minister then was someone who was responsible. He would not steal money. Today they steal money, they do whatever they want, no one bothers them. They are all bandits! There are more bandits than serious people here!" he says bitterly.
One of the band’s stars, guitarist Miguelinho Nsimba, is now struggling to make ends meet. He’s sick and lives with many family members in a small house in the capital’s poorest district. “What I could earn when I was in my twenties, I can’t now that I’m 63! I don’t have enough to buy a kilo of fish in the market or an aspirin! To survive I have to play the guitar in bars, for example, for two nights a week from 9PM to 2AM I get between 15 and 30 euros, that’s nothing right?” he tells us.
Miguelinho’s fate mirrors that of Super Mama Djombo and Guinea-Bissau. After a promising start following independence, the dreams faded, the orchestra slowly disbanded, and the country crumbled. The original band never reunited. But sometimes some of the old members play and tour with younger musicians, even going to Iceland a few years back.
One evening as the sun set over the capital, four of the former members agreed to play together in a small yard. They had a guitar and bongos, and with her beautiful voice Dulce started singing Dissan Na M’Bera. For a short magical moment, the spirit of those heady days had returned to Bissau.