Radio Africa

The Endangered Archives Programme

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

A personal account

See also EAP 327: "Guinea's Syliphone archives" (2009)
EAP 608: "Guinea's Syliphone archives
 II" (2012-2013)
the complete catalogue of recordings. 

All of the archival project material is freely available to the public online via the British Library Sounds website.


I have collected Syliphone vinyl recordings since I first travelled to Guinea in 1994. During those early trips to West Africa, I puchased vinyl records and cassettes in every town. Of all the local recording labels I came across, it was Syliphone, however, that fascinated me, and which focused my research on 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 there showed me a hand-written catalogue of some 50 audio recordings on 1/4" magnetic tape. I was amazed to see that these were Syliphone era recordings were “uncatalogued” and had not been released on vinyl, thus were largely unknown outside of local Guinean radio broadcasts. This small catalogue of recordings, I assumed, described the complete RTG music collection, given that a large part of the archive was destroyed in 1985 when the building was bombed by Guinean artillery during an unsuccessful coup (see below). The government's collection of Syliphone vinyl was also destroyed in the attack, and thus it appeared that only these few dozen reels of analogue recordings remained.

 In 2007, I applied for funding through the Endangered Archives Programme, whose work partners with The British Library to preserve endangered cultural heritages. 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 preserve and digitise the audio reels of Syliphone era songs recorded on 1/4" magnetic tape that lay dormant in the archives of the RTG (and of which I had the small catalogue).

In June 2008 I received the welcome news that my application for Major Research Project funding had been approved. In August, I was in Guinea. I had been in correspondence with the Director of the BNG, Dr Baba Cheick Sylla, for several months, and over the years of the project, Dr Sylla became a confidante and was central to the success of the project.  


Upon arrival in Guinea, I met with my translator, Allen Nyoka, and with Dr Sylla we began to arrange meetings with musicians, RTG personnel, government ministers, and any interested people who were associated with the Syliphone label. The newly created Ministère de la Culture des Arts et Loisirs became project partners, with Minister Iffono declaring that the project was his "number one priority". Riad Chaloub, a singer and harmonica player with the orchestra Camayenne Sofa, and the number two in the Ministry, was also very supportive the project, and his assistance was considerable. Another member of Camayenne Sofa, Jean Baptiste Williams, the group's lead guitarist, was a senior journalist in Guinea and he arranged the media liaison. A series of interviews on Guinean radio ensued, and my days were thus spent promoting the project in the media while meeting with a broad spectrum of government and other representatives to arrange access to the archive and the digitising of its materials.

Before leaving Australia, I had made CD copies of the original Syliphone vinyl releases to give to the surviving musicians of the national orchestras. It's a sad truth that many musicians in Africa do not receive royalties from their music, and in Guinea most of the Syliphone era musicians - great musicians who who were widely recorded and who devoted their lives to progress culture during the independence era - do not even have a recorded copy of the music they made. During the era of President Sékou Touré (1958-1984), Guinean musicians were in the employ of the state, and the government held copyright and ownership of their recordingsIn the 1960s and 1970s, though they had propelled Guinean music to the forefront of contemporary African music, many Guinean musicians of the era lived in obscurity and poverty following the death of President Touré and the subsequent regime change As my archival project gained momentum, and became a cause celebre, I brought their predicament to light by exposing what I knew of the sale of their Syliphone recordings…

President Sékou Touré oversaw a cultural revolution in Guinea which was proclaimed under the name of "authenticité". It funded and promoted Guinean arts and culture and led to the formation of several arts agencies including Syli-Cinema, Syli-Photo and Syliphone. In the 1990s, following the death of Sékou Touré, the government of President Lansana Conté disbanded many of these state-funded cultural enterprises and sold the entire Syliphone catalogue to Ibrahima Sylla, the manager of Syllart, a music licencing and distribution company. The sale was not made public at the time and few knew had knowledge of it. My disclosures concerning the sale of the Syliphone catalogue caused considerable controversy. Many musicians were angry upon learning that they had been denied the opportunity to gain royalties from their music, for example through their union, the Bureau Guinéen du Droit d'Auteur (BGDA), and that all monies from Syliphone sales (for example, via Compact Discs) were in effect controlled by SyllartSyliphone was no longer a Guinean recording label owned by the nation. As to the BGDA, “they eat our money", as one musician informed me. I will also never forget the words of a man in his late 60s, as he took me aside, apologetically and humbly, talking softly in my ear: "I just want a little money before I die". I explained to him that I do not have the rights to Syliphone, as abject as that was, and all I can say is that it is up to Ibrahima Sylla, whose claims to swathes of West African music bear considerable scrutiny, to make good and see that the musicians receive fair payment. [Postcript: Ibrahima Sylla died in 2013, with the rights to the Syliphone catalogue maintained by Syllart Records through his wife and daughter].


Commencing the project in Conakry, I met with Balla Onivogui, 
chef d'orchestre Balla et ses Balladins, Lamine Camara, chef d'orchestre of the Horoya Band, and Sékou "Le Grow" Camara, trumpet player of Bembeya Jazz. Lamine Camara informed me that Métoura Traoré, the former
chef d'orchestre of the Horoya Band, was unwell and was in hospital in Dakar. I also learned that Keletigui Traoré, chef d'orchestre Keletigui et ses Tambourinis, was very ill, and I delayed seeing him until his health improved. To gather all parties together, a meeting was arranged in the nightclub Club Bembeya in Conakry with Sékou "Bembeya" Diabaté, Mohammed Kaba, Sékou "Le Grow" Camara, Bangaly "Gros Bois" Traoré, Linke Condé, Lamine Camara, and other musicians, which informed them of the parameters of my sound archive project.

ater, I was heartened to see that La Paillote, the grand venue of Guinean music in the 1960s to 1980s, was still going strong, and that orchestras such as Keletigui et ses Tambourinis performed there every Saturday night! I had some wonderful times there with Abdoul Karim “Chuck Berry” Camara, Papa Kouyaté, Talibé Traoré, Linke Condé and Amadou Thiam, interviewing them and talking about their lives in music. To see them smile so broadly as we listened to recordings of their music blasting out through the big speakers of the venue is a memory I will always cherish.


During the era of President Sékou Touré, the Guinean government created some of the finest archives and libraries in West Africa. In 1985, a year after Touré's death, an attempted coup resulted in widespread looting and the ransacking of government offices. The national library was pillaged, its holding scattered, and the RTG buildings bombed, which resulted in the Syliphone archive being largely destroyed. Many thought that the complete archive of all Syliphone vinyl recordings would never exist again.

In such a “post-Sékou Touré” climate, my project to recreate the Syliphone catalogue and its (unreleased) studio recordings faced several impediments. After 2 months of liaison with the respective Ministries, I was yet to be granted access to the RTG's sound archives which held the audio reel-to-reels recorded during Sékou Touré's reign, even though I had the support of the Culture Ministry, the National Library, many of Guinea's renowned musicians, and that of Mme Yayé Haby Barry, the RTG archive directrice. Many weeks passed and the wheels of bureaucracy were moving mighty slowly, if at all, it seemed. It is very difficult to be granted access to the RTG, let alone its sound archives. The building is a centrepiece of government broadcasting and is heavily protected, with up to a dozen armed soldiers at its entrance gates supported by a military barracks, Camp Koundara, which is adjacent to the RTG.


After six weeks of entreaties and meetings with officials, I fianlly received approval to access the RTG sound archives. I was given a security pass, and after passing through the military checkpoints I walked onto a paved road adjacent to the Christian cemetery which led to the RTG buildings. No photos of the RTG were known to me. It was a sensitive government complex, and as I approached its buildings I saw that they were right on the Atlantic foreshore, which made them a prime target during the “Portuguese invasion” of 1970. Yet admidst all of its history, all I saw as I neared the entrance were goats, ducks and chickens wandering underneath the RTG's large satellite dishes.



Upon entering the main building, I was taken to rooms that were full of reels of 1/4" tapes [Fr: bande magnetiques]. Many of them, as I saw, barely able to contain myself, were audio recordings of Guinean orchestras. Many more featured traditional music, while others oral narratives contained oral narratives and interviews. There were also hundreds of videos. I counted perhaps 600 reels of music of Guinean orchestras which featured many unreleased (on Syliphone vinyl) recordings. The earliest were from 1963. Reels from Guinea's 2nd Republic, that is, the government of Lansana Conté, were also in abundance, and featured groups such as Super Flambeau, who during the Syliphone era of President Sékou Touré performed as the Super Boiro Band. As I began my work, I saw that it was a very dirty and dusty job to winkle out many of the reels from the old shelves, where they had sat undisturbed for years. So much dust, black mould and mice droppings! I set up my laptop and hardware and began to preserve and digitise the archive of audio reels. On a good day I could complete the work of archiving just 5 of the larger 12 inch reels, which each held over 60 minutes of recorded music. Many of the reels of audio tape were in desperate need of preservation. Any reel recorded prior to 1965 usually broke when played, as the tape had become brittle with age and simply snapped, which I repaired. Any reel recorded between 1965 and 1970 often broke when re-wound, and also required repair, though tapes after 1970 were in very good condition. Importantly, the vast majority of the ¼’ reels had maintained their audio fidelity, that is their sound quality was largely unaffected by the passage of time. This was due to the use of high-quality BASF tapes as the medium for the master recordings. These (very expensive) tapes were donated by the government of West Germany in the mid 1960s, when Guinea's recording studios were being modernised, and were no doubt a gesture during the Cold War politics.

I commenced to preserve and digitise 
the audio reels, focusing on the older recordings, which included: 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 excellent orchestres federaux such as Manden Könö, Kébendo Jazz and Kaloum Star.


By late September 2008, my project to recreate the Syliphone vinyl archive was close to completion. The catalogue is now permanently housed at the Bibliothèque Nationale de Guinée. Its Director, Dr Sylla, with the Culture Ministry, had arranged for an official launch, held at Guinea's National Museum. Jean Baptiste Williams had contacted the media and arranged for the RTG to record  a television commercial to advertise the archive launch. A camera crew thus arrived and filmed Dr Sylla and I miming "oohs" and "aahs" as we looked over the Syliphone vinyl discs that had been transferred to CD format. The RTG is Guinea's sole TV station, no advertisements, so it drew a lot of public attention! The launch was set for September 29.

I remember well the morning when I gave Dr Sylla the last of the Syliphone CDs transferred from vinyl, for it meant that the Syliphone collection was now complete - all 750 songs from the original 160 vinyl records had been digitised and transferred to compact disc. I had prepared three bound copies of a "Syliphone catalogue", which featured each Syliphone recording with its cover both recto and verso and its track listing. These were presented to Dr Sylla and the RTG. The National Library were also presented with four large framed pictures which featured many of Guinea's great musicians. The Syliphone catalogue of recordings is maintained at this website.

On the morning of the archive launch, a huge thunderstorm arrived. It rained very heavily. "A good sign", someone said. A crowd had gathered inside the museum which included journalists, Guinean musicians, the Imam of Conakry, public figures and friends. Dr Sylla opened the ceremony with a speech, followed by my own, and then Minister Iffono spoke to the assembled guests. General Facinet Touré, President Conté's right-hand man and the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, closed the ceremony, and at its conclusion he awarded me a Diplôme d'Honneur. Highlights from the archive launch were broadcast on the RTG's national news that night, and I was so very happy that the project had been such an amazing success. I was also very moved by the heartfelt and sincere thanks that were expressed for the exposition: some told me that when they had heard of the archival project they felt like crying (such was the RTGs neglect over decades), and several were moved to tears during the launch. There was great joy that the complete catalogue had been restored, amidst the sadness of its neglect during the years of President Conté's rule (1984-2008). I was even proclaimed "a Guinean", a great honour indeed!, and was often asked how I managed to assemble all of the Syliphone 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 the history of modern Guinea was indeed my passion, and that the music of the era were an inspiration to me, and many.

The "Syliphone Archive" of its catalogue of vinyl recordings transferred to CD format was displayed at the National Museum for a week, and was later re-launched for a further week during Guinea's 50th anniversary celebrations in October 2008.

Once the project of delivering the entire Syliphone catalogue of vinyl discs transferred to CDs was complete,was able to commence work at the RTG tarchive, digitise and preserve the audio reels of 1/4” magnetic tape - thousands of songs which did not make it onto vinyl. It was an impossible task: the archive of audio reels was too large and I had too little time. I committed to return, however, to complete it. Before departing Guinea, I was informed that I would be receiving a medal for the work. The Guinean government, through the Ministère de la Culture des Arts et Loisirs, awarded me the gold medal of the Palme Académique en Or, Guinea's highest academic honour. It had never been awarded to a non-African citizen.

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.

Due to the limited amount of time to archive the RTG’s ¼” reels of Guinean music, I committed to a second project in 2009 which would focus entirely on preserving and digitising them. This project, fully funded by the Endangered Archives Programme, became EAP 327: "Guinea's Syliphone archives" (2009).

As of 2008, readers will be heartened to learn that the following orchestras continue to play regularly in Guinea: Bembeya Jazz National, Horoya Band National, Keletigui et ses Tambourinis, Balla et ses Balladins, the 22 Band and Camayenne Sofa, with the latter releasing 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.

On November 11 2008, all of Guinea was saddened by the news of Keletigui Traoré, who passed away. He was given a state funeral and was buried in the cemetery at Camayenne. He was a true musical 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 is only one surviving member. But there is happier news. Balla et ses Balladins now feature a young line-up, fully trained in the original repertoire, thus hopefully ensuring that the orchestra's music will find its roots in a new generation of musicians. And then there is Kombo Jazz, an excellent 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.

Due to the limited amount of time I had in the RTG archives in 2008, I planned a second project for the following year which would focus entirely on preserving and digitising its audio reels. This project became EAP 327: "Guinea's Syliphone archives" (2009).

For further reading on the subsequent Endangered Archives Programme 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. 

Readers may also be interested in this publication:

"Music for a revolution: The sound archives of Radio Télévision Guinée", in From Dust to Digital: Ten Years of the Endangered Archives Programme, Maja Kominko (ed). Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2015, pp. 547-586.

All images and text copyright © Graeme Counsel