Radio Africa

The British Library Endangered Archives Programme

Major Research Project Award 2009
EAP 327: Guinea's Syliphone archives

A personal report

For further reading on the other projects see EAP 187: "Syliphone - an early African recording label" (2008) and EAP 608: "Guinea's Syliphone archives II" (2012-2013).
See also
the complete catalogue of recordings. 

In 2008, with British Library Endangered Archives Programme funding, I completed the "Syliphone project", which presented the Guinean government with the complete catalogue of Syliphone vinyl recordings as digital files. The Guinean governemnt then granted permission for me to access the sound archives at the Radio Télévision Guinée (RTG) offices located in the suburb of Boulbinet, Conakry. The official paperwork to gain access to the archives took 4 weeks to be processed, and when I finally entered the archive I was amazed to discover many hundreds of audio reels of studio recordings of Guinean orchestras, traditional ensembles and musicians. I discovered far more material than I had thought existed, and I had only a limited time to archive as much of it as I could. I concentrated on archiving the "orchestres moderne", and in a few weeks I archived 554 songs from 69 reels of 1/4" audio tape. A link which provides further details of the 2008 project is above. As the archiving was unfinished, I hoped to return in 2009 to complete the project, which was now under the name of the "Syliphone archive".

Early in 2009 I received the news that my Endangered Archives Programme application for a second round of funding was successful. I arrived in Conakry in mid-July, confident that the new Minister of Culture and Communication, Justin Morel Jnr, would be supportive of my project. One of the great difficulties in gaining access to the RTG archives is that the material is cultural and should logically be within the provenance of the Ministry of Culture, but the RTG actually resides within the Ministry of Communication, thus one usually has to work with two ministries. However, for the first time in Guinea's history, the two ministries had merged, and with the experienced Justin Morel Jnr at the helm the prospects looked very good indeed. When I arrived the Minister was overseas, and his Secretary General, Jean Paul Cedy, was very helpful. Guinean bureaucracy is slow, however, and it took 3 weeks before I could commence archiving.

In early August I began to archive the collection of audio reels at the RTG. I estimated that there were 700 reels, containing approximately 5,000 songs, or some 30,000 minutes of music. I worked hard and fast. I had excellent cooperation from the Ministry, less so from the RTG, but the most pressing isssue was Guinea's fragile political state. Pres. Lansana Conté had died at the end of 2008 after 24 years at the helm, and in his place, and after a coup d'etat, was Capt. Moussa "Dadis" Camara. Dadis, as everyone called him, sold himself as a man of the people. He did a lot to curb Guinea's rapid slide into a narco state, and he jailed and ridiculed on television many corrupt officials. His long speeches, with his voice rising in pitch, were mesmerising but unconvincing. He appeared vain and self-important, with few ideas for Guinea's future other than to bolster the military. Guinea was thus very militarised during 2009. The constitution had been suspended and the Guinea's armed soldiers acted with impunity. There was little law and order, except that which the soldiers decided to mete out on the spot. An example of their power is illustrated by a proposed strike by Conakry's police force for extra pay. The police were warned by the government not to go on strike, but went ahead. The government's response was to send in several units of soldiers to attack the main police station. The soldiers machine-gunned the police as they hid in their office's ceiling, kicked and beat many others, both men and women alike.

In 2009 Conakry was a very dangerous city to be in. It was a violent and unpredictable, and the atmosphere was very tense. Dadis was becoming unpopular as it grew increasingly obvious he was not going to leave office, as he had promised to. The public, which had endured 50 years of one-party and militray rule, were fed up with dictatorships, and this new one was roving more corrupt than its predecessors. Soldiers drove at breakneck speed through Conakry's crowded streets, they strutted the town with their machine guns, and it was common for drunken soldiers to harass the public. Guinea's soldiers had also begun to kidnap business leaders, like the CEO of TOTAL, the petroleum giant. Such acts went largely unpunished. Soldiers also exchanged gunfire with a government minister's bodyguards, and then stole his car. They also robbed the Ghanaian ambassador of his car and his clothers, leaving him in his underwear by the side of the road. The soldiers liked stealing, and it was common to see them driving their own private Mercedes or Jaguars or 4x4s in town - vehicles impossible to afford on a soldier's salary. They were pillaging everything they could and every day the tension grew. Something was going to give, but I did not know in what shape or form. In such an environment I worked as fast as I could.

September 28 marks the anniversary of Guinea's "non" vote in 1958 to France's offer of autonomy within a confederation of French states. On that day Guineans chose independence, and the nation became independent on October 2 1958. Guinea's opposition chose the date of September 28 for a major rally, the biggest that Guinea had seen since Dadis came to power. Estimates of the number of people who went to the football stadium that day to protest against Dadis' rule vary from 40,000 - 50,000. Shortly after the speeches had begun, fully armed units of soldiers burst into the stadium and commenced firing into the crowds. Guinea's most shameful day had begun. Within minutes 187 civilians were killed and more than 2,000 injured. According to eye witness reports, when the soldiers ran out of bullets they used bayonets. They raped women in the streets. Human Rights Watch's report of the massacre is necessary and difficult reading, for what happened on September 28 2009 should never be forgotten. It was a day of such utter shame that it should be rubbed in the face of every Guinean soldier every morning. The government of Dadis Camara did its best to cover up the events. In order to lower the body count, for example, many of the dead were dumped at sea, only to float back to shore over the coming days in a gruesome spectacle. Of the dead, less than 100 bodies were presented at the main mosque for identification by relatives, and these are some of the saddest photographs I have ever seen.

On the day of the massacre I was working at the RTG by myself. I walked out of the offices at 4pm and sensed something had changed. The streets were very quiet. So quiet in fact that there were no cars at all. I then saw a military vehicle speeding like crazy on the road ahead. It nearly smashed into a taxi. The soldier/driver got out and wanted to bash the taxi driver. I started to walk as fast as I could. I knew about the rally and knew something was wrong. I had my laptop with me and walked down the quieter streets in a near sprint. I got back to my room safely and then heard the news about what had occurred. People were already preparing to leave Guinea.

The next few days were unlike any I have experienced. Firstly, the city centre was entirely closed. Not one shop was open. The streets were empty of vehicles and the city was as quiet as a rural village. Foreign governments warned their citizens to leave Guinea immediately, and everyone was doing just that. The Lebanese shopkeepers, embassy staff, NGO's, tourists... Within a few days there were just 3 people left at the Catholic Mission where I was staying. It was a very stressful time, with rumours of impending civil war, splits in the army, French navy vessels on way, CIA agents in town sent to kill Dadis, soldiers robbing tourists en route to the international airport, kidnappings, flight cancellations, mobile phone and internet networks about to be cut... it was very tense. There was gunfire at night, muffled explosions, and no-one really knew what was happening or what was going to happen.

I was one of the few white people left downtown. I wanted to wait and see what happened, in order to try and conclude the archiving project. It was highly likely that soldiers would kick down my bedroom door, I reasoned, so I made plans to escape through the window of my room. It was on the first floor and I devised a route from my window onto the rusty corrugated iron roof high above, and to escape from there, rooftop to rooftop. Dadis had sent a large Brahman bull to the Catholic Mission, which was tied to a tree and would be used to supply food, I was informed. Not very reassuring, that. One afternoon an army truck full of soldiers arrived, and they set up a large mounted machine gun in the car park below my room! I was close to getting onto the roof right then, as I peeked at them through a tiny gap in my door.

With the situation deteriorating, I booked a flight to escape Conakry. I couldn't continue to work at the nerve centre of Guinea's television and radio broadcaster in such circumstances. The RTG is very likely the first place to be taken over in any counter-coup, and indeed it has been attacked by Guinea's armed forces before, by artillery in 1985. I was in little doubt that I would be arrested or worse if discovered in the RTG during a counter-coup, and something was definitely going to happen in response to the army slaughter.

Dadis had done nothing to prosecute those who took part in the massacre and no-one had been arrested. The international community thus mobilised itself against his regime and Crimes Against Humanity charges were being drawn up. Guinea's military junta realised that change was coming and that their time was short. Kidnappings, theft and extortion increased with impunity and the army was out of control. It was rumoured that Lt. Toumba Diakité, a close friend of Dadis and commander of the National Guard, was going to be named as the main perpetrator of the massacre, and would be the fall-guy to take the blame. On December 4 Dadis was shot in the head while at Camp Koundara, the army barracks which protects the RTG some 100 metres from the main building. Dadis was shot by Lt. Diakité, who then fled with dozens of fully-armed armed red berets (he has never been captured). Amazingly, Dadis survived, and was flown to Rabat where he slowly recuperated. So, with Guinea crumbling I had managed to leave via a plane ticket to Casablanca. I remember that there were 13 passport checks at Gbessia airport, with the last overseen by a teenage boy soldier on the tarmac. With the full support of the British Library that was the end of the 2009 project.

After many weeks of convalescence Dadis was ready to return to Guinea, but instead of his plane flying to Conakry it took him to Ouagadougou. In stepped General Sékouba Konaté, who declared himself interim leader of Guinea and promised to bring the nation to democracy. He did so, and in 2010 Guineans elected Alpha Condé, a veteran opposition leader, as their new President. I then began to plan my 3rd project with the British Library, which would see me return to Guinea in 2012. A link to a personal account of that project is above.

Readers may be interested in my 2010 publication "Music for a coup - 'Armée Guinéenne'. An overview of Guinea's recent political turmoil", in the Australasian Review of African Studies. 31 (2), pp. 94-112.

All images and text copyright © 
Graeme Counsel