Today, if the small West African state of Guinea Bissau is famous—or, perhaps more correctly, infamous—for anything, it’s for frequent coups d’état. But that hasn’t always been the case. After gaining autonomy from Portugal in 1974, the country was perhaps best known for its music, and Super Mama Djombo was its most celebrated band, touring from Cuba to Mozambique. Our reporters Nicolas Germain and Sarah Sakho travelled to Bissau to meet four of its members.
Super Mama Djombo was formed at a boy scout camp in the mid-1960s, when its members were still just children. In 1974, band leader Adriano Atchutchi came on board, giving the group a political bent. For more than a decade, the band made the nation dance at huge free concerts they gave across the country. The band’s young members embodied the hopes of the post-independence generation.
With their anti-colonialist lyrics,Super Mama Djombo became the soundtrack of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), whose leader, Amilcar Cabral, was known as the African Che Guevara. A year after he was assassinated in 1973 by members of his own party, his brother Luis became Guinea-Bissau’s first president. The group often played at Luis Cabral’s public speeches.
“President Luis Cabral really liked and appreciated Mama Djombo,” Atchutchi said. “He liked to show us around. Sometimes he would ask a minister or an official to get off his plane so we could all get on. We joined him on all his official trips. We were with him when he went to Ghana, when he went to Congo, Mozambique, Angola, Portugal.”
One of Mama Djombo’s songs, “Sol Mayor Para Commandante” has become Guinea-Bissau’s unofficial alternate national anthem and is played on the radio during every coup d’état.
Over time, those post-independence hopes began to fade, and Super Mama Djombo started writing lyrics about poverty and government corruption. Some of their songs even earned them short stints in jail.
The band disbanded in the 1980s and things have only grown worse in Guinea-Bissau since then. The country has been wracked by civil war and coups d’état. Until recently, it was considered West Africa’s drug trafficking hub.Things were so bad that Ze Manel, a founding member of the band, left the country for twenty years.
“It used to be better, people used to be proud of this country,” he said “There was a real government. Ministers used to be responsible people, they would not steal money and risk jail. But today they steal, they do what they want, no one bothers them. They are bandits! There are more bandits than serious people here, I swear!”
Miguelinho Nsimba was once a leading figure in Super Mama Djombo, but the good old days seem far away now. Today he suffers from illness and lives with his extended family in a small house.
“What I could earn when I was in my twenties, I can’t now that I’m 63!,” he said. “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 nine pm to two in the morning. I get between 15 and 30 euros that’s nothing right? We fought for this country to move forward, so that our lives could improve. I have no regrets, I accomplished a lot, but there is no real recognition here.”
The original band never got back together, but the members who stayed in Bissau have kept in touch. Sometimes they play with younger musicians, and a few years ago they toured Iceland together. One evening, as the sun set on Bissau, they met up to sing their most famous hit, “Dissan Na Mbera”, “Let us Walk in Peace”. The song lambasts government vehicles that drive too fast and endanger ordinary people walking on the roadside. It was written a little after independence to denounce the early signs of corruption. Four decades later, it rings just as true.