Super Biton de Ségou, an everlasting legend
Interview with Mama Cissoko
More than twenty years after Mali’s artistic and cultural biennales hit the dust, we salute one of their most brilliant offspring: Super Biton de Ségou, decreed best band from 1970 to 1976. Still active, Super Biton continues to be the pride and joy of its hometown. RFI Musique met up with bandleader and eminent guitarist, Mama Cissoko.
During the month of February, the harmattan dries out the air and covers the entire town of Ségou with a film of fine dust. Mama Cissoko parked his car and wordlessly led us into the courtyard of his home, sometimes scene of Super Biton rehearsals.
Cissoko has led the band since the 2000s, taking over from the late Amadou Bâ. As we spoke, his telephone rang insistently. It was a call from an “important personality” who had just been promoted and wanted Mama Cissoko to provide the entertainment at his celebratory party. Super Biton is still a prestigious band whose presence guarantees a memorable evening – yet the group has been going for over half a century, and has ridden a rocky road of highs and lows.
Mama Cissoko wasn’t in the original Super Biton line-up. The lightning-fingered guitarist was poached from the Kayes band in 1972 to add to the already excellent team of Ségou musicians. He may not have been there from the start, but he’s a mine of information about the band’s first years. “Super Biton de Ségou was formed when a bunch of regional bands merged in the mid-sixties, and the Malian general public got to know it during the Youth Weeks, where it won several awards from 1964 to 1968.”
National recognition came in 1970 at the first cultural Biennale launched by Moussa Traoré. The Orchestre Régional Biton, which hadn’t yet gleaned the “Super” tag, bowled over young Malians with its smooth brass, sophisticated guitar work, roaring bass, the singers’ uplifting voices and its resolutely modern flavour.
At the time, though, Ségou’s regional band had to stick to a clear-cut cultural policy: “Our mission was to promote the region’s cultural heritage. Here in Ségou there are Bambaras, Bobos and a lot of hunters: each ethnic group found something in our repertoire. That’s what made us such a hit in Mali, because our songs were educational and instructive. Every track had a meaning,” the head guitarist told us.
With their proverbs and moral songs encouraging Malian young people to work and be brave and courageous, the themes of Super Biton’s songs reflected the post-independent mood. Most of the band’s hits were a direct product of the Ségou region: “To glean material for creating our compositions, Super Biton’s singers, Percé Doumbia, Toussaint Siané and Abou Kissa would set off into the bush with a tape machine and record old women singing ceremonial songs about marriage and circumcision…” Cissoko recounted.
This gleaning process gave the band some of its biggest hits, like Siséni. “The track insists that you shouldn’t show off too much, or be too zealous because you’re a director or a minister. You mustn’t grind others down because you never know what’s going to happen to you tomorrow,” pointed out Mama Cissoko.
Tomorrow was still a long way off for Super Biton when the track came out during its seventies heyday. After winning four cultural biennales in a row, the indomitable group was made a national band in 1976, like the national Bademba. The promotion took the band to Koulouba and the Malian presidential palace to entertain at official receptions.
The group represented Mali in the sub-region. At weekends, Super Biton would play at the Ségou hotel, Je T’aime. “People used to come from Mopti, Bamako and Sikasso just to see Super Biton.” The golden period lasted as long as the reign of Moussa Traoré. “In 1991, with the regime change, Alpha Oumar Konaré told the musicians to take a rain check and the Biennales stopped,” said the guitarist.
The end of the Biennales marked the start of lean times for the musicians, who in vain tried to root out the decree that had made them servants of the Malian state in 1976 – and so entitled to a life pension. After the deaths of several of the group’s original members and a series of disillusions, the band took a break and several musicians turned their hand to a solo career.
In 2001, spurred by the Sur le Fleuve Festival, Super Biton recruited four young local musicians and sprang back into action. Now each year, like a flagship, Super Biton de Ségou gives the festival’s opening performance, pulling out all the stoppers to retain its title of best band in Mali.