How an African jazz band perform the sound of battle

Les Amazones de Guinée don't just play mesmeric West African jazz – they also belong to the militia. Nick Hasted reports
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The Independent Culture

Les Amazones de Guinée's second album, Wamato, is their first for a quarter of a century, just one romantic aspect of a story already packed with exotic allure. Because all 15 of these women, from the leader-bassist Commandant Salematou Diallo down, are soldiers in the Guinea militia. You can imagine them, machine-guns in one hand and guitars in the other, as heroic freedom fighters sweeping up from the Niger, female equivalents to the Touareg rebel desert-bluesmen Tinariwen, from neighbouring Mali. Add the firmly moral African feminist stance of their lyrics, and these Amazons sound like the ultimate fantasy of Joe Strummer, or British punk feminist pioneers The Slits.

Les Amazones de Guinée's music would have made them more envious. Lead guitarist Yaya Kouyate and rhythm guitarist N'sira Tounkara create mesmerically circling, interwoven riffs, over which solo singers hector abrasively, or sink into sweet harmonies. Saxophones add percussive clout, or sultry jazz melodies. If the guitars and voices are Wamato's real glory, the sense of emotional, communal necessity in the songs is crucial, too.

The reality behind them is, in some ways, more prosaic than those guerrilla girl-guitarist dreams. "I would take everything with a little bit of a grain of salt, myself," advises Robert Urbanus, head of their UK label, Sterns Africa. "They are all in the army, and Commandant Salematou is actually the head of a 650-soldier camp. But I wouldn't like to put my reputation on the line as to how active they actually are as soldiers. They live and work in camps, but get all the free time they want. They're like a Scots bandsman colonel I knew. Technically, he was in the army. But he spent most of his time touring North America, prancing around in his kilt. It's good PR."

Les Amazones' real origins are more fascinating than the myth. They are intimately connected to Guinea's first president, Ahmed Sekou Touré, after the country became independent from France in 1958. He saw culture as a crucial weapon to cut across tribalism, heal colonial wounds, and forge a national identity. L'Orchestre Féminin de la Gendarmerie de Guinée, formed from female soldiers in Guinea's new militia in 1961, were intended to be agents of this.

They were renamed Les Amazones de Guinée for foreign consumption. But to Guineans, and the French who remained Touré's enemies, they also referenced the ferocious female Amazon regiments of King Béhanzin of Dahomey (modern Benin), who fought French colonialists in the 1890s.

Les Amazones' music changed in the Sixties, too. Originally an acoustic band, heavy on strings, bongos and congas, at a time when Guinea was in thrall to Cuban sounds, by 1965, electric guitars, drum-kits and brass had equipped them for international success. The 1977 Festac festival in Lagos, a landmark celebration of black African culture that gathered together the continent's intelligentsia, and saw Les Amazones play on a bill that included Bob Marley and Fela Kuti, was their breakthrough. Global touring, in which they abandoned military khaki for colourful Guinean clothes, saw them become stars of Touré's new nation. Their first, and till now only album (bar an unreleased early Sixties effort for Guinean radio), Au Coeur de Paris, was recorded in Paris in 1982.

That album included "PDG", a tribute to Touré's ruling Parti Démocratique de Guinée and a song that encapsulates the group's ambiguous status: their president really did hold the pan-African and nationalist ideals on which Les Amazones were founded, but he also became a paranoid tyrant, ordering the "disappearance" of the head of another of his cherished new cultural institutes, the national ballet, among many others. His successor after his death in 1984, Lansana Conté, was worse, and is today a sick man, still ruthlessly clinging to power through his army. Rather than being the romantic rebel rockers so beloved of Western musicians, Les Amazones these days serve in a militia that props up a corrupt and violent regime.

Of course, it is easy to be censorious from this distance. While it is true that the sheer quality of Les Amazones' musicians and vibrant performances is what made their name, their fortunes have been linked to the political situation in their country in ways simply not true for Western musicians.

The rule of President Conté, corrupt and self-serving in a way that Touré was not, sent Guinea's economy into meltdown. During his premiership, Touré had aggressively promoted Guinean music, but when Guinea's fragile music industry vanished in the Eighties, Les Amazones did as well. Though they continued to play around West Africa, tours outside the continent were no longer an option, and Au Coeur de Paris a faint memory. "I've seen them play in the Africa Centre here in London – but that was 25 years ago," Urbanus recalls. "It's not part of their brief to make records. They are a working band in the army."

The creation of the new, high quality Studio Bogolan in Bamako, where Damon Albarn made Mali Music, and the interest of Paris-based producer Ibrahima Sylla, sparked Les Amazones' recording return. "Circumstances provided the opportunity to do it, and [band-leader] Salematou jumped on that," Urbanus says.

A long and difficult bus ride along rutted, muddy roads took them from Conakry into Mali. The 15 women who arrived were very different from the band who made their debut in Paris, 25 years before. Retirement and death has left only five original members. But Wamato is a record of exuberant relief and dignified passion, more than loss.

As the guitars and horns kick in, Les Amazones' 47-year existence, and its deep, knotty roots in Guinea's history, fall away. It is as incidental to the record as those fanciful visions of the band charging into battle. Photos of them laughing as they play, in bright boubou dresses, are more relevant. The freedom of this fine military band comes when they put down their guns.

'Wamato' is out this week on Sterns Africa