In an interview in 1986 I asked Amadou Bah (nicknamed 'Armstrong'), who was at the time 'chef d'orchestre' of the Malian orchestra Super Biton National, about the record released on the Tangent label and titled "Balandzan". He told me "Balandzan" was in fact the name of the group. This group from Ségou was a sort of nursery for the Super Biton orchestra; talents were recruited and trained in this nursery until they were ready for the 'real thing'. Also, if for some reason they were short in certain positions within the orchestra they could invite members of "Balandzan" to join them. The lp, explained Amadou Bah, was recorded by members of this group in Abidjan. The mention (on the sleeve) of the name Biton was to indicate not only the orchestra to which they were related, but also the repertoire which they were using. Because all the songs on the album are in fact songs from Biton.
Despite never hearing anything to indicate the contrary I am not convinced that the musicians in this record weren't at the time members of Biton. Could it have been a coincidence that the orchestra played nearly all the songs from this lp when they toured Europe in 1986? And why were members of Biton selling a cassette (on the right) with (on the B-side) the tracks of this lp?
I suspect political motives may play a part in this affair. Biton was the regional orchestra of the Ségou region, and funding came from the regional authorities. I have heard many rumours about the strict rule of regional directors and conflicts between musicians and regional authorities (as in other countries, usually about money).
To be honest, I am inclined to prefer the older repertoire of Biton*. But as Biton is one of my favourite Malian orchestras, this album still features in the top 100 African lp's.
The majority of the songs of this great orchestra are traditionals rearranged for an 'orchestre moderne'. Of course, most of these traditionals were from 'their own' region. The opening track "Sodanso", for example, was taken from a traditional made famous by the great Hawa Dramé. She also sung "Garaba Mama", which is on the cassette Biton were selling in 1986.
The themes of the songs are mostly of a moral nature. Even in praise songs, the emphasis is on the moral aspects. This doesn't mean that controversial subjects are avoided. In "Waracoro" a man rejects the popular 'norm' that a man can only be succesful and get married if he is well-dressed and his appearance is smart. He chooses to stay single and have girlfriends instead. And "Diagneba", on the cassette, is about arranged marriages. "I will marry the one I love" is the message of this song.
"S.T.I." is a song in praise of an organisation, the Sociéte de Transports Internationaux. I am told this song caused some trouble for the orchestra, presumably because the regional authorities hadn't authorised the flattery.
"Kara Demba" is a song about a great Bozo (an ethnical group of fishermen), who knew the profound mysteries and myths of the Bozo culture.
I am adding the cassette Biton were selling during their European tour of 1986. Side B of this cassette has the same tracks as the lp, but side A has five great additions to the songs on the lp. I would like to draw the attention of the connoisseurs to the first track of the cassette, "Bomama", which you may recognise as (the older) "Zani Diabaté" by the Super Djata Band.
Tangent TAN LP 7008
Bomama (cassette 1986)
As a bonus I would like to add this 'teaser' of a French documentary about the great Malian orchestras. This contains recent footage of members of Super Biton in Ségou, including Toussaint Siané, Mama Sissoko and Aboubacar Kissi 'Cubain'.
*I hate to keep referring to future posts, but I can assure you I will get round to this.
PS: The photo at the beginning of this post was taken by Isabelle Vigier at the 1986 Biennale in Bamako, and shows - from left to right - Toussaint Siané, Mama Sissoko, Amadou 'Armstrong' Bah and Mamadou 'Blick' Diarra.