Radio Africa

The Endangered Archives Programme

Major Research Project Award 2012-2013
EAP 608: Guinea's Syliphone archives II

A personal account

See also EAP 187: "Syliphone - an early African recording label" (2008)
EAP 327: "Guinea's Syliphone archives
" (2009).
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, funded by the Endangered Archives Programme, I commenced the digitisation, preservation and archiving of Guinea's national sound archives, located in the Radio Télévision Guinée (RTG) buildings in the inner city suburb of Boulbinet, Conakry. I had limited time to complete the work, thus, in 2009, I received further funding to deliver this large project, which I estimated to contain in excess of 5,000 songs on 1/4" reel-to-reel format.

Due to Guinea's volatile security situation in 2009, I was forced to end the project early. I had hoped to return to Guinea in 2011, however my archival partner, the Ministry of Culture, was one of the last ministries to be named by Guinea's new civilian government. There was thus no Minister to approve my project by the deadline of the funding application. I therefore re-applied for funding in 2012 and arrived in August of that year, with six months of funding to complete the project.

Upon arrival, three years' absence from Conakry felt more like three weeks! The city had changed little, though the rickety dwellings and shops on the main route out of town had steadily been demolished to make way for shiny new apartment projects. The "ambiance" of the city, which was most foreboding in 2009 when the capital and the nation were on a precipice, bore much less tension. Guinean soldiers still strutted the streets, as they have done for decades, though were now without their machine guns tossed over their shoulders. The incoming President Condé had decreed that such arms must remain in their barracks.

Delays in trying to commence the archival work at the RTG, however, remained a constant and stultifying feature. Though I attended the Ministry of Communication and the RTG offices every day for a month, and presented my credentials and documents as verified and supported by former government Ministers, the response from the RTG was both familiar and vague: "Ah, but things have changed…”, was the reply. The previous government's approval for my project was dismissed as irrelevant and was thus rendered into limbo, and it became increasingly clear that, as per my previous projects, senior RTG staff were disinterested in the outcome unless it of was of direct benefit to them. Their position was most frustrating, given their role to preserve Guinean arts and culture.


It was a surprising and I must say pleasant turn of events when the Minister of Communication (who had oversight of the RTG), his Chef de Cabinet, and his Secretary General were all dismissed by the President, for failures elsewhere. Unlike his predecessors, the incumbent Minister, Togba Kpoghomou, approved the sound archive project without ado. Given my previous experiences trying to complete the sound archiving of the RTG in 2008 and 2009 (see the links above), I worked like a man possessed for over 100 consecutive days to archive, preserve and digitise the reel-to-reel audio tapes.Those days were amongst the most productive and fulfilling of my life. Through sicknesses, broken ribs and beaucoup crazy shit... nothing deterred me at all: particularly not the RTG's senior staff's continued indifference towards the sound archival project (though their Minster had approved it; nor their recalcitrance and their dismissive attitudes to me and my staff; nor the tragedies of everyday life in Guinea. Nothing. I was on a mission, and determined to complete it.

The RTG offices in Boulbinet, Conakry

At work in the archive

The archival work thus commenced in earnest in early September 2012. On one day, I archived 28 audio reels of 1/4" magnetic tape. Huge! On other days I could only archive just 4 or 5 reels. The work varied according to the size of the audio reels and their states of disrepair. I recall preserving an early 1960s recording of the Orchestre de la Garde Républicaine, all tracks unreleased on vinyl, where the tape was so brittle that it would snap every few seconds during play. The tape consisted of five 3 minute songs and it took nearly a day to splice, and re-splice, until it was done.

During the earlier 2008 and 2009 RTG sound archival projects, I had prioritised the archiving of Guinea's orchestras, reasoning that these were the most significant. What remained to be archived in the collection, I surmised, were largely the recordings of “folklorique” music by Guinea's ensembles and soloists. Though I was familiar with this music to an extent, for example as performed by Malinké griots and Fulbé ensembles, as the archival work progressed I began working with Guinean musical heritages that were entirely unfamiliar, for example the music of the Kissi, Toma and Baga ethnic groups. It was a revelation to hear this music and unreleased recordings by notable Guinean musicians such as Farba Tela, Ilou Dyohèrè, Binta Laaly Sow, Binta Laaly Saran, Sory Lariya Bah, Jeanne Macauley, and the group Koubia Jazz. These artists, unfortunately, are largely unknown outside of the West African diaspora, for the RTG archive (as an extension of the Guinean government) owned the rights to the recordings, and upon the death of President Sékou Touré, broadcasts of their music was very limited indeed. Following the death the President in 1984, little of the RTG archive was broadcast to the public on the national radio, as much of it was deemed politically sensitive. To the new regime, the music served as a stark reminder of an earlier era in Guinea's history, when a “cultural renaissance" and "cultural revolution" were instigated by Sékou Touré, and which flourished. The sound archive had the potential, through its music, to remind Guineans of an era when the nation proclaimed its independence and celebrated its politics, music and arts, the latter through significant government sponsorship. "Archives are sites of power..." applies most readily to the context. What really irked me, personally, was that a generation of young Guineans had grown up in the in 1990s and 2000s not knowing of the music that their parents had not only created but enjoyed listening to. And what great music it was, with just a portion of it released to international audiences on vinyl records via the Guinean government's Syliphone recording label.

 What was most surprising to me, however, was the extent of Fulbé in the archive.

I have published many articles on the politics of Sékou Touré, whose endeavours to instil his vision of the Guinean nation is clearly evidenced in his cultural policy, known as authenticité (see below). To provide a brief overview, one of the key aspects of authenticité was realised through the government funding of orchestras and ensembles in each of Guinea's 35 regions, so as to give a broad and equal representation to all of the nation's language groups and cultures. With respect to the music of the Fulbé, however, a language group who represent 40% of Guinea's population, only 3% Syliphone recordings were performed in Fulfuldé, the language of the Fulbé. Surely this is not an accurate reflection of Guinea’s cultural policy, which proclaimed to represent “the music of the nation”! As I suggest in my publications, the cause of this marginalisation of Fulbé music resides in the decades long power struggle in Guinea between the Fulbé and the Malinké. Prior to independence in 1958, Guinea's Fulbé population represented a voting bloc who had opposed Sékou Touré and his political party, the PDG. From the early 1960s, a struggle unfolded against the increasingly autocratic President and his PDG, whereby multiple conspiracies and attempted coups were thwarted. Touré regularly singled out the Fulbé as being behind these "plots", and Fulbé politicians, traders, merchants and citizens were subsequently targeted and imprisoned. The intimidation of any domestic opposition to government rule, coupled with the increasingly dire economic restraints, resulted in over million Guineans fleeing to neighbouring countries or abroad: some 20% of the population, many of whom were of Fulbé ethnicity. The 3% of Syliphone songs which are performed in Fulfuldé reflects not the harmonious nation under the guise of an "authentic" cultural policy, but that of a marginalisation of the Fulbé voice... Yet, here in the RTG archive, were hundreds of reels by the nation’s best Fulbé musicians, most of which had never been heard outside of Guinea.

On occasion, I would come across reels of music which had "not for broadcasting" written on their cover. An example of this is below (note "A ne pas diffuser", near the bottom, a "Folklore Pular", or "Fulbé folkore" recording). During the Sékou Touré years (1958-1984), the government employed numerous censors who approved music held in the RTG archives prior to broadcast. Noting that the RTG was the only radio station in Guinea for close to 40 years, and whose large transmitter broadcast throughout the nation and to neighbouring states.

With November 2012 approaching, I had nearly completed the archiving of the ¼” tapes, thus the end of the archival project was in sight. Given this, I enquired about the existence of an additional sound archive that I had been shown, just once, briefly, in 2009. It was a room attached to the RTG building complex adjacent to the local Guinean army barracks. Upon enquiry, the senior RTG staff informed me that this archive "no longer existed". Quite odd, as it clearly existed: one could see it! Upon further enquiry, RTG management’s response changed: "The archive does in fact exist, but it doesn't contain any music, just speeches by Sékou Touré and recordings of PDG conferences". With time, and upon further enquiry, this also changed to: "There was music in the archive, but not very much, and it contains only copies of music from the main archive".

Nearing the end of the project, however, the attitude of the senior RTG staff altered. Their earlier indifference and recalcitrance dissipated, coinciding, as it were, with the publicity that the archival project was increasingly attracting. To blunt their entrenched oppostion to the project, wherein they had not received any personal funding, I had garnered the wide support of Guinean musicians, staff at the National Library (led by the wonderful Dr Baba Cheick Sylla, may he rest in peace), former Ministers and public servants, and had promoted the project through many of Conakry's public radio stations (where the DJs tried their best to test my knowledge by playing random songs). Thus, forearmed, I officially requested access to the "mysterious" second archive, which was widely known (!) by all at the RTG as "the annexe". Granted access, upon entering the annexe I was aghast to see perhaps 10,000 audio reels of 1/4" magnetic tape, arranged in perfectly neat rows. These, I was told, were recordings of Sékou Touré's speeches and of PDG conferences. In the corner of the annexe room, however, were two long rows of reels of tapes, very poorly stored. Many of them had no cover to protect them, and if they possessed a cover nothing was written on them at all. Some reels of these tape were clearly marked and were of Guinean orchestras and ensembles. Many, though, were entangled in spaghetti-esque and serpentine entwinements. These audio reels all required archiving, and I realised that I would be in Guinea for a lot longer than I had planned...

I had completed the archiving of all the audio reels in the RTG's main archive, so commenced to archive those in the "annexe". These annexe reels, as I soon discovered, were predominantly of Fulbé music. It was very odd, I thought, that so much Fulbé music existed in this "annexe" room, "hidden", as it were, from my access. The annexe was in a dismal state, too. It lacked the 24 hour air-conditioning that had sustained the main archive for the past 40 years, and it was also regularly flooded, ankle deep, as I often witnessed in the monsoon. The air in the annexe was thick with the stench of mould, and the occasional worker I saw in the room would drink milk to obviate any sicknesses caused by it. The humidity and moisture were surely steadily destroying everything in the room. This "annexe" desperately needs climate control to save the many hundreds of hours of speeches and other materials in the room (for example, 24mm films by Syli-Cinema, stored in rusting canisters). I transported all the music reels from the annexe to the main archive. Many were in poor condition. Though inadequately stored and archived, there were only a handful of reels whose state had become so deteriorated that they were unable to be preserved and digitised.


A typical reel from the "annexe", with many metres of tape at the beginning of the reel left un-wound and loose. 
Such poor storage causes creases and wrinkles in the tape which affects and distorts its sound. Other reels in the main archive were never stored in this fashion.

No climate control in the annexe caused mould to grow on the reel covers and tapes. Many reels in the annexe were in a very poor condition. 

No climate control also allowed termites to eat the covers and the reels. 

Spot the difference: the reels containing political speeches are on the right, while the reels of music are on the left.

In the annexe: there was so much loose magnetic tape spilling over that reels were often entwined together.

It took many weeks to sift through the unlabelled audio reels in the "annexe", as each required comparison to the 6,000 or so other songs already archived, to avoid duplication. At last, though, in early 2013, after three major archival projects spanning six years, there were only 50 or so audio reels left to archive... But, such was the new-found enthusiasm for the project, RTG staff would locate more! And so the project continued... This occurred many times. It was impossible to know when the work would all be done. But, in January 2013, satisfied that the original audio reels of ¼” tape had been located, archived, preserved and digitised, I called an end to the project. My friend and my translator, Aly Badara Fofana, celebrated with a nice cold bottle of Pastis.

For this 2012-2013 project, 5,210 songs from 827 audio reels were preserved, archived and digitised.

The total number of songs archived over the three Endangered Archive Programme sponsored projects at the RTG (2008, 2009, 2012-2013) amounted to 9410 songs from over 1200 audio reels of 1/4" magnetic taoe. This equates to over 55,000 minutes of Guinean music.

I presented the total collection of these archived songs to the RTG as 1500 compact discs, and as digital audio files held within a 1tb external hard drive.

The "new" archive of reels from all three Endangered Archve Programme projects: near completion and stored in a climate controlled space.

The entire collection of archived materials were relocated to a single climate-controlled room in the RTG (its photo above). With a week to go before I departed, publicity for the completion of the project accelerated and was arranged by both the Ministry of Communication and the Ministry of Culture. A significant undertaking and commitment, given that for decades the Guinean public had known little of the existence of this incredible archive of their own music. From 1984, following Sékou Touré’s death, most of the music in the RTG archives was never broadcast. Given that archives are "sites of power", many a Guinean government had been wary of the potential of the music to inspire, to remind, and to reveal. Thus, for a generation, Guinea's national sound archive, held at the RTG in Boulbinet, Conkary, had been effectively silenced.

Through 6 years of preserving, digitising and archiving, I had become attached to the collection. I often thought, for example, of young Guineans who had been told by their family that one day their mother/father brother/sister aunt/uncle had been recorded by the government through the RTG. Many would never have heard these recordings, and their loved ones, teh musicians, long passed away. Such was my motivation, as it was a travesty that an entire generation of Guineans had never heard their music. The project had thus become a personal mission, and I often mused that the songs had been "asleep" for a long time and were now "waking up". The enormous scope of the sound archive's materials - over 55,000 minutes of music - also reveals the full extent through which the Guinean government, under Sékou Touré, revitalised and asserted the dignity of its people through the promotion of the nation's music and culture, via the cultural policy of authenticité.

For Guinea to progress, I believe it should embrace the old concept of "regard sur le passé", to borrow from one of the most famous recordings of the Sékou Touré era (Bembeya Jazz National, Syliphone SLP 10, 1968). To "look at the past" would embrace not only the music and politics of Guinea's pre-colonial era, as glorified widely by the traditional singer-historians, the griots, but also that of the post-colonial, namely the era of Sékou Touré and his successors. Guinea's contemporary politics, however, continue to present a reductionist dialectic of Malinké vs Fulbé. Though Sékou Touré was a Malinké, he loved the music of Farba Tela, a Fulbé, who performed for him regularly at the Presidential compound. That Farba Tela, the most popular of all Fulbé musicians, was never featured on a Syliphone release, yet was recorded on over 50 songs by the RTG (all digitised), is a sad illustration of the hypocrisies of the President and of his government's authenticité programme. I trust that the merit of the RTG sound archival projects is it that they reveal and present the many representations of Guinean culture for all to examine, to listen to, and to enjoy.

At the completion of the sound archive project, the Minister of Communication, Togba Kpoghomou, generously provided a sumptuous lunch at Hotel le Rocher for RTG staff involved in the project. The Minister of Culture, Ahmed Tidiane Cissé, arranged for a celebration at La Paillote, Guinea's premier venue for many an artist and orchestra since the early 1960s. Les Amazones de Guinee performed, as well as Keletigui et ses Tambourinis (featuring Linké Condé and Papa Kouyaté). The event was broadcast live on many radio stations, the Prime Minister telephoned in his congratulations, and the event was featured on the national television news that evening. It was a wonderful soirée and a fitting end to the project.

I acknowledge and are grateful for the support of the Endangered Archives Programme; the British Library; the Embassy of the United Kingdom in Conakry; Sterns Music; the Bibliotheque Nationale de Guineé; the Ministère de la Communication; the Ministère de la Culture (et des Arts et Loisirs); the staff at Guinea's Sandervalia National Museum; the archival staff at Radio Télévision Guinée; my translators Prince E. A. J. Kenny, Allen Nyoka and Aly Badara Fofana; musicians and friends; - who all contributed to the completion of the sound archive projects at the RTG. It would not have been possible without their support, and I dedicate the project to them and to all Guinean musicians who performed to further their nation.

All images and text copyright © 
Graeme Counsel