• Danny Wiser

GUINEA-BISSAU: Ar Puro - Super Mama Djombo

Updated: Mar 17

Despite dark times, the legacy of an anti-colonialist revolutionary lives on through this beautiful album, reminding Bissau-Guineans to hold onto their hope

Guinea-Bissau gained infamy in recent years for becoming the centre of the global drug trade, with a huge proportion of drugs en route to Europe from Latin America arriving to the former Portuguese colony first. The nation has suffered from a variety of serious domestic problems since it gained independence, and issues such as violence, corruption and poverty are still ever-present today. Whilst prospects in modern day Guinea-Bissau may seem gloomy, there was once a time in which music was central in dispelling pessimism from its citizens and inspired real change.

“This obviously does not mean that the band are living in denial regarding Cabral’s passing, but rather that they see his way of thinking as being incredibly topical for Guinea-Bissau today.”

Our first ever ‘Album of the Week’ that we featured on 200worldalbums fleetingly mentioned the pan-African anti-colonialist’s leader, Amílcar Cabral, and his role in emancipating Cape Verde. Not only was Cabral instrumental in Cape Verde’s fight for independence, but he was the leader of guerrilla movement in Portuguese Guinea, enabling it to become Guinea-Bissau as we know it today. The PAIGC which was founded by Cabral, nowadays is the largest party in the National People's Assembly, and in recent years Super Mama Djombo’s composer Atchutchi Ferreira, who served as Mayor of Bissau, has also played a leading role in the party.

This is no surprise when one considers that in the 1970s and 1980s Super Mama Djombo were the country’s most popular band, with their politics inextricably linked to Cabral. The word ‘Djombo’ is in fact the name of a spirit in Guinea-Bissau which was supposed to protect the fighters that fought for the independence of the country against the Portuguese colonisers. The band members were very close to the fighters and to Cabral’s brother, Luís, who became the nation’s first President. During this era, Lusophone countries saw a strong movement of ‘Música de intervenção ‘(intervention music), from those dissatisfied with Salazar’s dictatorship in Portugal, to Guinea-Bissau’s first years of independent political rule. Despite close links to the new regime, bands like Super Mama Djombo were unafraid to call out acts of bad governance, and this is why their 2008 album feels so pertinent decades later.

Breaking up in 1986, the original members of the band got back together many years later and recorded Ar Puro, reminding listeners of their still-relevant message which popularised them in the first place. Even if you do not speak Kiriol (Guinea-Bissau Creole), you can often hear the name Cabral sung throughout. His message and vision was not just an anti-colonialist one, but as a staunch socialist his values clearly bear relevance for the band members who see Cabral’s philosophy as essential to combatting the problems their country faces in the 21st century. My favourite song is the opening track Alma (soul) which contains the lyric ‘Cabral ka muri’ which means Cabral has not died. This obviously does not mean that the band are living in denial regarding Cabral’s passing, but rather that they see his way of thinking as being incredibly topical for Guinea-Bissau today.

One fact that makes the Super Mama Djombo recording of Ar Puro even more spectacular is not just that they were getting the band back together after such a long pause, but rather the childhood friends who formed the group on a boy scouts camp in 1964 recorded their album in Iceland of all places. Bringing their African rhythms to Reykjavik induces a rather powerful image of the potential culture clash. Reading a gig review of a concert they played whilst there, I came across a wonderfully evocative sentence…“Although somewhat closed and rigid at first, the Icelandic crowd soon melted and swayed, danced and sang along incoherently”. Whilst the Bissau-Guineans' music is full of powerful lyrics, such is the beauty of their music that it can cross over cultural lines and arouse a sense of joy in those listening regardless of nationality.

Whether it is more traditionally African jazz songs such as N’Tchintche, with their fast percussion, trumpets and chant-singing, reminding me of legendary bands such as Senegalese outfit Orchestra Baobab, or songs with a slight Cuban twang that can be heard often with their emphasis on guitar, Super Mama Djombo’s music always seems to be uplifting. Whilst Guinea-Bissau has hit a rough time, compatriots listening who are reminded of the spirit of Cabral must feel some level of hope when listening to a modern version of the music that was central to the birth of their great nation.