Radio Africa

The British Library Endangered Archives Programme

Major Research Project Award 2008
EAP 187: Syliphone – an early African recording label

A personal report

For further reading on the subsequent projects see EAP 327: "Guinea's Syliphone archives" (2009) and EAP 608: "Guinea's Syliphone archives II" (2012-2013).
See also
the complete catalogue of recordings. 

 

I have been collecting Syliphone vinyl discs since 1994, when I first travelled to Guinea. I became fascinated with them, and they led my research into the music of Guinea's 1st Republic. In 2001, when I was conducting my PhD research at the offices of Radio Télévision Guinée (RTG), a technician showed me a hand written catalogue of some 50 recordings on 1/4" magnetic tape format. It was apparent that these were Syliphone era recordings that had not been released on vinyl. It appeared that this small catalogue described the complete RTG music collection, as a large part of the archive had been demolished in 1985 when the RTG was bombed by Guinean artillery during an unsuccessful coup. The government's collection of Syliphone discs had been destroyed and it appeared that only a few dozen audio reels remained.

In 2007 I applied for funding through the British Library's Endangered Archives Programme. My project proposal was two-fold: firstly, that I create an archive of the complete Syliphone catalogue, transferring all of the original vinyl records to compact disc format and housing them in the Bibliothèque Nationale de Guinée (BNG); and secondly, that I transfer to compact disc the audio reels of Syliphone era songs that lay dormant in the archives of the RTG. In June 2008 I received the good news from the British Library that my Major Research Project funding application had been approved, and in August I was in Guinea. I had been in correspondence with the Director of the BNG, Dr Baba Cheick Sylla, for some months and Dr Sylla was to be my principal contact.  

Arriving in Guinea I was dreading the "formalities" of Gbessia airport, though I exited unscathed. I met with my translator, Allen Nyoka, a few days later, and with Dr Sylla we began to arrange meetings with musicians, RTG personnel, government ministers, and people associated with the Syliphone label. I found myself very busy early on. The newly created Ministry o
f Culture des Arts et Loisirs supported the project, with Minister Iffono declaring that it was the number one priority of his Ministry. Riad Chaloub, the vocalist and harmonica player of the orchestra Camayenne Sofa, and the number 2 in the Ministry, was also very keen to support the project and helped considerably. Another member of Camayenne Sofa, Jean Baptiste Williams, the group's lead guitarist, is a senior journalist in Guinea and he took over the media liaison. A series of interviews on Guinean radio ensued. My days were thus spent with Dr Sylla in meetings with a broad spectrum of government officials.

Before leaving Australia I had made CD copies of the complete recordings of Syliphone era orchestras to give to the surviving musicians. It's a sad truth that many musicians in Africa do not possess a copy of their own music, and most of the Syliphone era musicians, great musicians who gave their lives for their country, have not received any royalties at all from their recordings. It is shameful to see the poverty in which they live. Though my project became something of a cause celebre, I was unable to assist the musicians other than expose the truth of their predicament. In the 1990s the government had sold the entire Syliphone catalogue to Ibrahima Sylla, manager of Syllart, a licencing and distribution company, and had kept this awkward truth hidden from the public. It was also largely hidden from the musicians themselves, though a few knew of the Syliphone sale. My disclosures concerning the Syliphone catalogue caused a storm. Many musicians were upset and angry, for they had lost any chance of recompense. "The BGDA [the musicians' union] are eating the money!", one told me. I will never forget the humility and dignity of one musician in his 60s, and his words as he took me aside, apologetically whispering in my ear: "I just want a little money before I die". All I can say is that it is up to Mr Ibrahima Sylla, who claims to owns great swathes of West African music, to make good with his soul.

Early on in Conakry I met with Balla Onivogui, whom I last saw in 2001. Age had confined him mostly to his home. I met often, too, with Lamine Camara, the chef d'orchestre and conga player of the Horoya Band, and also with Sékou "Le Grow" Camara, trumpet player of Bembeya Jazz. Lamine informed me that Métoura Traoré, the former band leader of the Horoya Band, was unwell and was in hospital in Dakar. I also learned that Keletigui Traoré was very ill, and I put off meeting him until his health improved. A meeting was arranged in Club Bembeya with Sékou "Bembeya" Diabaté, Mohammed Kaba, Sékou "Le Grow" Camara, Bangaly "Gros Bois" Traoré, Linke Condé, Lamine Camara, and others musicians, which let everybody know the parameters of my project. I was heartened to see that La Paillote in Camayenne was still going well, and that Keletigui et ses Tambourinis performed there every Saturday night. I had some good times there with Abdoul Karim “Chuck Berry” Camara, Papa Kouyaté, Talibé Traoré, Linke Condé and Amadou Thiam, interviewing them and talking about their music. It was a wonderful time, and to see them smile so broadly as we listened to the CDs of their music blasting out through the big speakers is a memory I will always cherish.

In the era of President Sékou Touré the Guinean government created some of the finest archives and libraries in West Africa. Then, in 1985, a year after Touré's death, an attempted coup resulted in widespread looting and ransacking of government offices. The RTG was bombed and the Syliphone archive destroyed. Many thought that the complete archive of all Syliphone vinyl recordings would never be seen again. As my project to recreate this Syliphone archive began to develop, I persisted with my enquiries to obtain access to the reel-to-reels at the RTG. I had the support of the Arts Ministry, Dr Sylla, and Mme Yayé Haby Barry, the RTG archive head, though it still took several weeks for the paperwork to be processed. It is very difficult to get access to the RTG - it's one of the nerve centres of the government and is a heavily protected building with a dozen armed soldiers at the gates and a military barracks next door. Once past the soldiers, however, it's quite a tranquil place, right on the ocean, with sheep, ducks and chickens wandering underneath the large satellite dishes. After a month I was finally given approval to access the sound archives, and I was even allocated my own aircon office to work in. I was given a RTG ID card, and had unfettered access to all of the archives - a rare privilege indeed, especially for a non-Guinean. I discovered rooms in the RTG archive that I never knew existed, rooms full of audio reels! Many were of orchestras, others featured traditional music, or contained oral narratives and histories. I uncovered perhaps 600 reels of music of orchestres moderne, with many unreleased recordings by the national orchestras. The bulk of the recordings, however, focused on the regional orchestras, the orchestres federaux, with the earliest recordings from 1963. There were also audio reels of 2nd Republic groups such as Super Flambeau, who during the Syliphone era performed as the Super Boiro Band. It was a dirty and dusty job to winkle out the reels from the shelves, where they had sat for years. So much dust, mould and droppings. I set up my laptop "studio" and began digitising as many of the audio reels as I could. On a good day I could copy 5 large reels - about 6 hours of music. I began to see first hand how desperately in need of archiving the reels were. Any reel recorded prior to 1965 usually broke when played, for the tape had become brittle, and I repaired many, many reels. Any reel recorded between 1965 and 1970 usually broke when re-wound and also had to be repaired, though tapes after 1970 were in quite good condition. I copied some truly rare and incredible music at the RTG, with some examples being: 1963 recordings by the Orchestre Honoré Coppet (an early member of the Syli Orchestre National); 1963 recordings by Orchestre de la Paillote; 1964 recordings by the Orchestre de la Garde Républicaine 1ere formation; three versions of "Moi ça ma fout" (by Bembeya Jazz, Keletigui et ses Tambourinis, and Sombory Jazz); and recordings by great Federal Orchestras such as Manden Könö, Kébendo Jazz, and Kaloum Star. CD copies of these recordings, over 100 reels, were given to the RTG archive and the British Library.

By late September my Syliphone archive at the BNG was close to completion. Dr Sylla and the Arts Ministry had arranged for an official launch, but as the BNG was lacking space it was decided to hold it at the National Museum. Jean Baptiste Williams had contacted the media and the invitations went out. He had also arranged for the RTG to broadcast a commercial advertising the archive launch, so one day a camera crew arrived at the BNG and filmed Dr Sylla and I miming "oohs" and "aahs" as we looked over the Syliphone CDs (click here for the video link). There are only about two commercials on Guinea's sole TV station, so it drew a lot of attention! The launch was set for September 29. I worked hard to get all of the Syliphone discs ready and remember the morning when I gave Dr Sylla the last of the CDs transferred from vinyl. The collection was now complete - all 750 songs from the original 160 vinyl records digitised to compact disc. Dr Sylla and I shook hands. I then gave him three bound colour copies of the Syliphone catalogue, which featured a photo of each album, recto and verso, and its track listing. These catalogues became highly sought after! I also presented the BNG with four large framed pictures featuring Guinea's great musicians and Syliphone disc covers (click here to view the Syliphone catalogue).

On the morning of the archive launch a huge thunderstorm arrived and it rained very heavily. "A good sign", someone said. The crowd gathered inside the museum and there were many journalists, musicians and friends. Dr Sylla opened the ceremony with a speech, followed by my own, and then Minister Iffono spoke. General Facinet Touré, President Conté's right hand man, closed the ceremony, and in concluding he awarded me a Diplôme d'Honneur. Highlights from the ceremony were broadcast on the TV news that night, and I was so happy that the project was a success. I love the music of the Syliphone era, and I was very moved by the heartfelt and sincere thanks for what I had achieved. Some told me that when they had heard of my project they felt like crying, and in fact people did cry at the ceremony. It was very moving, and later I observed people looking at all the CDs on display, which were grouped into orchestras and eras, and I saw great pleasure and also sadness by the neglect of it all during the years of Lansana Conté's rule (1984-2008). I was proclaimed "a Guinean", a great honour indeed! I was often asked how I managed to get all of the Syli[hone vinyl discs together and what led me to this area of research. I could only respond that my 15 years of researching Syliphone recordings and their history wasn't work for me, it was pleasure, and that I was very fortunate to be part of the archival project.

The Syliphone archive was displayed at the National Museum for a week, and was later re-launched for a further week during Guinea's 50th anniversary celebrations. It was planned to tour Mali and three Guinean ministries became involved.

Life returned to normal after the archive launch and I was working at the RTG 6 days a week. I was digitising and preserving as many reels as I could, and when I had spare time I met with musicians and interviewed them. A few weeks before I left I was informed that I would be receiving a medal for my work. The Guinean government through the Ministry of Culture des Arts et Loisirs conferred me the gold medal of the Palme Académique en Or, Guinea's highest research honour, and on the day before I flew back to Australia I received it.

To my left is Dr Sylla, Directeur de la Bibliothèque Nationale de Guinée, and to my right is Dr. Iffono, Ministre de la Culture des Arts et Loisirs.

Readers will be heartened to learn that the following orchestras continue to play regularly in Guinea - Bembeya Jazz, Horoya Band, Keletigui et ses Tambourinis, Balla et ses Balladins, the 22 Band, and Camayenne Sofa, who released a new CD in September 2008 to mark their 35th anniversary. Even some of the smaller groups in Guinea, such as Kolima Jazz, still get together occasionally, and up until a few years ago groups such as Tinkisso Jazz and the Forest Band were still playing.

All of Guinea was saddened by the news of Keletigui Traoré, who passed away on November 11 2008. He was given a state funeral and was buried in the cemetery at Camayenne. He was a super star, a legend of modern African music whose career dated to the pre-independence era. His influence on Guinean music is immeasurable. Many of Guinea's musicians from the golden era of the 1960s and 1970s are now very old, and from Kébendo Jazz, for example, there's only one surviving member. But there is happier news. The Balladins now feature a young line-up, hopefully ensuring that their music will find roots in a new generation of musicians. And then there is Kombo Jazz, a great orchestra featuring many of the Syliphone era stars, who play together every week. Guinea's premier venue, La Paillote, has for the last 50 years hosted music most nights of the week. Go there while you can, and if you're lucky you will sit under the stars on a Saturday night while Linké Condé, now blind, leads the Tambourinis orchestra with his sublime electric guitar.

 

For further reading on the subsequent projects see EAP 327: "Guinea's Syliphone archives" (2009) and EAP 608: "Guinea's Syliphone archives II" (2012-2013). See also The complete catalogue of RTG recordings. 

 

All images and text copyright © Graeme Counsel