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CONAKRY (Reuters) - When Macire Toure isn't carrying her rifle on patrol through the streets of Guinea's capital, she's playing her saxophone with Les Amazones -- an all-female soldier band with hopes of international fame.
Like most in this turbulent West African country where people cast their ballots on Sunday in the first free vote since independence in 1958, she and her fellow musicians hope for political stability and a better future.
"During moments of difficulty in the country, we don't rehearse, we take care of the gendarmerie. But when there is calm, we do our music," she said.
The national guardswomen's band, now 20 strong, was formed in the 1960s under the administration of President Sekou Toure as a way to demonstrate gender equality within the military.
It started gaining traction as a commercial band in 2005 with tours to Europe and the release of two albums of rumba and afro-beat songs, mostly about love, peace, respect and patriotism -- never about politics.
At a rehearsal this week, band members still in their election security uniforms danced, sang and played their elderly instruments, misshapen, cracked and out of tune. But the music was sweet and upbeat and the players were smiling broadly.
They represent the soft side of Guinea's security forces, which have become infamous for indiscipline and brutality, and whose members have been implicated in at least two massacres of civilians in the past decade.
"Les Amazones are the main source of pride for the Guinean military," said Moussa Moise Diabate, the band's manager. "From the moment they start playing, even the victims of the military applaud their music."
Their progress has been held back by instability -- including a coup in 2008 -- that has made it difficult to get visas to travel abroad, or to obtain money from the military budget to buy instruments and pay for recording sessions.
The head of the national guard, General Ibrahim Balde, who says his own interest in music was frustrated when his father pushed him into the military, is eager to change that.
"We know Guinea needs stability and democracy, but we cannot develop this country if we leave culture on one side," he said.
"Les Amazones are a historic monument for Guinea, and an important instrument of peace," he added. "We want to see them succeed, for Guinea's sake."
Editing by Tim Pearce