Momo Wandel Soumah, instrumentalist, singer and composer: born 1926; twice married (10 children); died Conakry 16 June 2003.
A late flowering in the lengthy career of the visionary Guinean musician Momo Wandel Soumah brought him to the attention of world music fans, although the multi-instrumentalist, singer and composer never quite gained the recognition he deserved.
His tenor sax style showed the influence of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman, and his deep gravelly voice drew comparisons with Louis Armstrong and Tom Waits. Informed by his studies in Senegal, Korea and France, Wandel Soumah's music hinted at the roots of African-American jazz through a wide-ranging exploration of Guinean folk styles. One well-known admirer is the BBC broadcaster Charlie Gillett, who remarked:
Momo was a perfect bridge between old and new, between Africa and North America. I often wished I could play [his song] "Toko" to Tom Waits, looking forward to the expressions of amazement and delight as Tom recognised a kindred spirit in Momo. He was one of those paradoxes, a major figure who was virtually unknown. I believe his reputation will grow as people discover his album Afro Swing.
Momo Wandel Soumah's musical career began inauspiciously in the late 1940s when he began to teach himself the banjo. In 1951, he joined La Joviale Symphony - one of the two leading orchestras of the time who would entertain the colonial élite in the Guinean capital, Conakry, with a repertoire of Western ballroom standards. While with them, he also learned saxophone and clarinet, which led to him joining their main competitors, La Douce Parisette, in 1955.
Within three years, though, Guinea had gained its independence from France, and European-oriented music fell from favour under the socialist leader Sékou Touré. Members of the disbanded ballroom orchestras now found employment in state-sponsored groups who were encouraged to create a more Afro-centric sound by adapting traditional styles to modern electric instruments, ushering in what many see as the "golden era" of Guinean dance bands. In 2001, Wandel Soumah told the journalist Katharina Lobeck,
We were pushed to return to our source, our own folklore. So we would go to the villages, drill and dig deeply in the soil of our home towns and we found gold - beautiful songs that we would arrange and introduce to our orchestras.
Wandel Soumah initially worked with Syli Orchestra, which subsequently split into two sub-groups called Balla et ses Balladins and Kélétigui et ses Tambourins. He joined the latter and stayed with them as a saxophonist until the end of Touré's by-then dictatorial rule in 1984.
Touré's death brought another sea change in Guinean musical fashions, along with the end of state-sponsored groups. But instead of joining one of the new privately funded "variété" groups peddling a blend of Antillean zouk, Latin and Maninka music, Wandel Soumah founded his own Wandel Sextet. Uniquely, they used adapted local acoustic folk instruments along with Wandel's inspired sax improvisations to fuse North American jazz and the roots musics of the Maninka, Fula, Susu and his own Baga tribespeople. "The heart of jazz is found in Guinea, I can only express what I feel in jazz," he said of this solo project.
They released their first album, Matchowé, in 1992 on the French label Buda. Several well-received tours of Europe followed, but the death of two members meant that the follow-up, Afro Swing, didn't appear until 2001, on the Belgian imprint Fonti Musicali. Wandel Soumah's most recent success was as musical director of the Paris-based company Circus Baobab. In April this year, they performed three sold-out shows at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London.
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