Radio Africa

The Endangered Archives Programme

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

A personal account

See also EAP 187: "Syliphone - an early African recording label" (2008)
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.

In 2008 I received Endangered Archives Programme major project funding for the archival project Syliphone - an early African recording label, whereby I presented to the Guinean government the complete catalogue of Syliphone recordings. Following its successful launch, the Guinean government granted access to their national sound archives held at the Radio Télévision Guinée (RTG) offices in the suburb of Boulbinet, Conakry. In 2008, the process of gaining access to the archives had taken many weeks, and when granted acess I was amazed to see hundreds of audio reels of studio recordings on 1/4" magnetic tape of Guinean orchestras, traditional ensembles, choirs and oral narratives. There was far more material than I had thought existed and, during the short period of time I had, I preserved and digitised as much of the sound archive as possible. I had focused on the recordings of the  "orchestres moderne", Guinea's acclaimed popular ensembles featuring electric guitars and brass sections, and over a few weeks I preserved and digitised 554 songs held on 69 reels of 1/4" audio tape. A great deal of work remained, and I hoped to return in 2009 to complete the project with further Endangered Archives Programme funding, my project renamed as the "Guinea's Syliphone archive".

Early in 2009, I received the welcome news that my application for a second round of funding was successful. I thus arrived in Conakry in mid-July, confident that the new Minister of Culture and Communication, Justin Morel Jnr, would be supportive of my project. Previously, a central difficulty in commencing work at the RTG was the process of gaining access to its materials. The RTG resides within the Ministry of Communication, however the support of the Ministry of Culture was also required as the archives contained cultural artefacts. Thus, the project partners involved the cooperation of two Guinean ministries. This can cause undue delays, however, following the death of President Conté in late 2008, for the first time in Guinean politics these two ministries had merged. The experienced Justin Morel Jnr had been appointed as Minister, and thus the prospects of achieving the archival project were very positive. When I arrived in Conakry, Minister Morel was overseas on business, and in his stead the Secretary General, Jean Paul Cedy, was most helpful in progressing the archival project. Guinean bureaucracy, however, can be very slow, and it took nearly a month before I could re-commence the archiving work in the RTG, which I had to cease in 2008, due to lack of time.

In early August 2009, I began to archive, preserve and digitise the collection of audio reels held at the RTG's sound archive. I estimated that there were 700 reels in the archive, containing approximately 5,000 songs, or some 30,000 minutes of music. Firm relations with the Ministry had been etablished, and I set myself to the task of archiving. A most pressing issue, however, was Guinea's fragile political state. The death of President Conté after 24 years at the helm resulted in a military coup, with Capt. Moussa "Dadis" Camara declared President. "Dadis", as everyone knew him, projected himself as a man of the people. He actively curbed Guinea's slide into a narco state, jailing and ridiculing on live television the many corrupt officials involved in the illegal trade of drugs, namely cocaine. His long speeches, with his voice ever-rising in pitch, were mesmerising and theatrical. As the weeks of his rule turned to months, and as his auotcarcy grew, his few said plans for Guinea's future amounted to little other than to bolster the military. Guinea was thus a highly militarised state. The constitution had been suspended, and on the streets Guinea's soldiers acted with near impunity. There was little of law and order, except that which the soldiers meted out, on the spot. When Conakry's police force demanded extra pay and threatened to strike, for example, they were warned by Dadis' government not to take matters into their own hand, but they planned to strike nevertheless. The government responded by sending in several units of soldiers who attacked the city's main police station. The police officers hid in the ceilings of their station, only to be machine-gunned. Guinea's soldiers kicked and beat many others in the station's car park, men and women alike. A video of this raid was widely circulated.

In 2009, Conakry was thus a dangerous. It was tense, violent and very unpredictable. President Dadis was becoming increasingly unpopular, as it grew more obvious that he was not going to leave office, as promised. Guinea's public, who had endured 50 years of one-party and military rule, were fed up with dictatorships, and this new regime was proving even 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. It grew worse. They kidnapped business leaders, such as the CEO of TOTAL, the petroleum giant. I recall that Guinean soldiers exchanged gunfire with a government minister's bodyguards, and then stole his car. And that they robbed the Ghanaian ambassador of his car and of his clothes, leaving him in his underwear by the side of the road. The soldiers had become thieves, 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. Their acts went largely unpunished. As their pillaging grew, so did the tension. 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!

On 28 September 1958, President de Gaulle of France offered Guineans the choice between total independence or the opportunity of autonomy within a confederation of French states. Guineans, famously, voted overwhelmingly for their independence, the first of the Francophone states to do so. The 28th of September is a national holiday in Guinea. In 2009, Guinea's opposition parties chose this date for a major rally, the biggest that Guinea had seen since Dadis had come to power. Estimates of the number of people who went to the football stadium that day to rally and 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 unarmed civilians were killed by Guinean soldiers and more than 2,000 injured. According to eyewitness reports, when the soldiers ran out of bullets they used their 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 I hope that it is rubbed into the face of every Guinean soldier every morning when they present in their barracks. The government of Dadis Camara did its best to cover up these events. In order to lower the body count, for example, many of the dead were dumped at sea, only to float back ashore over the coming days in a macabre spectacle. Of those murdered, less than 100 bodies were presented at Conakry's mosque for identification by relatives, and those are some of the saddest photographs of atrocities I have ever seen. It is also factual that the solders targeted those of Fulbé ethnicity, as witnessed, and I have published several articles which reveal the falsity of Guinea's claims to a broad ethnic representation, prior to the Presidecy of Dadis Camara, of which the cultural policy of authenticité was a leading example.

On the day of the "stadium massacre", as it has become known, I was working at the RTG alone. I walked out of the offices that afternoon and on the street I realised something had radically changed. The roads were quiet and near deserted, in fact there was no traffic at all. I then saw a military vehicle speeding like crazy on the road ahead. It nearly smashed into a taxi. A soldier got out and assaulted the taxi driver. I went down side streets, as fast as I could walk, laptop in tow. I knew about the protest rally that day and that something had gone very wrong. Back at the Catholic Mission, where I lived, I then heard the news about what had occurred. People were already preparing to leave Guinea.

The next few days were unlike any other. Conakry's city centre completely closed down, not one shop open. It was empty of vehicles and as quiet as a rural village. Foreign governments were warning their citizens to leave Guinea immediately. The (predominantly Lebanese) owners of supermarkets, who had never left Guinea, I was told, had left with their families, as had what few tourists there were, and NGOs and foreign embassy staff. I decided to see it through, and within a few days there were three of us left at the Catholic Mission. It was an anxious time, with rumours of impending civil war, split factions in the army, French navy vessels on the way, CIA agents in town sent to kill Dadis, soldiers robbing those en route to the airport, kidnappings, flight cancellations, mobile phone and internet networks about to be cut, electricity sporadic.. it was very tense. There was gunfire at night, military jets performed sonic booms over the city, there were ad hoc muffled explosions, and no-one knew what was happening or what was going to happen.

I wanted to finish the archival project and decided to wait and see what happened. I had reasoned that it was highly likely that soldiers would kick down my bedroom door, so I made plans to escape through the rear window. My room in the Catholic Mission was very high up, on a first floor, with the only escape route through the window onto the much higher rusty corrugated iron roof above. From there, it would be rooftop to rooftop. Sheer madness, that plan, which I nearly enacted, as Dadis, a Christian, had personally sent a large Brahman bull to the Catholic Mission, which was tied to a tree in the car park for all to view. The bull would be used to "supply food", I was informed. This was a situation made worse when one afternoon an army truck full of soldiers arrived. They immediately set up a large mounted machine gun in the car park, I swear it was aimed at my room! I peeked at them through a tiny gap in my door. Fortunately none of them ascended the stairs, or else my plan of escape would have been enacted.

With the situation deteriorating, both the British and Australian governments insisted that I leave. Pfft. My family in Australia were more worried, so I booked a flight to escape the unfolding disaster. 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 assaulted during in any coup, and indeed it has been attacked by Guinea's armed forces before, by artillery in 1985. I was in little doubt that there would be a response of some kind to the slaughter at the football stadium, and that, if discovered at the RTG archiving the audio reels, I would be arrested, or worse. There was no law and order to rely upon.

Dadis attempted to explain the stadium massacre, but his response was facile. None were prosecuted or held responsible, no soldiers were arrested. The international community thus mobilised itself against his regime and Crimes Against Humanity charges were drafted. Guinea's military junta, led by Dadis, realised that their time was soon to be up. It was then 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 thus be the fall-guy to take the blame for the massacre. On 4 December, Dadis was shot in the head while visiting Camp Koundara, the army barracks which protects the RTG, some 100 metres from the sound archive. Dadis was shot by Lt. Toumba Diakité, who then fled with dozens of fully-armed armed red berets. Amazingly, Dadis survived, and was flown to Rabat in Morocco, where he slowly recuperated. Thus, with Guinea crumbling, I left via the airport. I remember that there were 13 passport checks, with the last overseen by a teenage boy soldier on the tarmac. With the full support of the Endangered Archives Programme the 2009 archival project was concluded.

Postscript: 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 Burkina Faso. General Sékouba Konaté then declared himself interim leader of Guinea and promised to bring the nation to democracy. He did so, in fact, and in 2010 Guineans elected Alpha Condé, a veteran opposition leader, as their new President. With this result I then began to plan my third project with the Endangered Archives Programme, which would see me return to Guinea in 2012.

For further reading on my Endangered Archives Programme 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 RTG recordings. 

Readers may also be interested in these publications:

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