14 Oct 2015

Kandia Kouyaté: Renascence

re.nas.cence [riˈnasəns; -ˈnāsəns]

the revival of something that has been dormant ...

Kandia Kouyaté in interview 2015 (photo courtesy Binetou Sylla)
The Mandé art of jeliya carries a long and complex tradition of fine distinctions and endless debates about the qualities that earn its hereditary poets, musicians and soothsayers the highest accolades and honorifics. But on the great jelimusolu (female singers) of our time, there is near-unanimity regarding Kandia Kouyaté: she is a ngara. More than a skilled singer, a ngara is the extraordinary artist who possesses what many would say is a paranormal aura of majesty.

Free download: album taster 

Born in 1959 in Kita, an ancient city in south-western Mali that has bred many important musicians, Kandia grew up immersed in the arts and customs of the Mandé people. Her father was a celebrated player of the bala (xylophone), and he recognised his daughter’s talent for singing when she was a child. Insisting, however, that she receive a modern education, he enrolled her in a Catholic mission school where all instruction was in French. While excelling in mathematics she continued to sing at family gatherings. When her father became ill and could no longer work, she had to do what she could to support the family, so she left school, having completed eight years, and went to the Malian capital, Bamako. There, at the age of 16, she joined a wedding band that presented a mix of traditional and contemporary, local and foreign repertoires. With her regal beauty and a strong contralto that belied her tender age, Kandia lofted the band’s popularity and drew the attention of the most important musicians and music patrons in the city and in the country.

Kandia Kouyaté circa 1976
Two years after her arrival in Bamako, Kandia married a prominent jeli from Kayes, and it was in his home on the banks of the Senegal River that she undertook the serious study of jeliya – its vocal technique and its canon of proverbs, praises, poems and songs – under the tutelage of her mother-in-law. On a visit to her brother-in-law in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in 1980, she gave a private recital that was recorded and circulated around West Africa on cassette. As her reputation spread, invitations to perform at private and public events mounted, and so did her rewards. In addition to cash and gold, wealthy patrons gave her new cars, and one placed a light aircraft at her exclusive disposal. She also earned an epithet, La Dangereuse, from reports that when she sang many listeners felt dizzy and some fainted.

With that kind of success, Kandia saw no reason to make records. She allowed more cassettes-locales to be taped and marketed, but despite their popularity in Mali, they didn’t travel beyond West Africa. The singer, however, did. Well-connected Malian émigrés brought her to France for concerts, and in 1987 she was one of a select group of Mandé jelew that participated in a London festival of royal court music from around the world. In 1989 and ‘90 she appeared in the USA as a star of the package tour called Africa Oyé. Record companies offered her contracts, but she turned them all down. Her most ardent suitor was the Senegalese record producer Ibrahima Sylla. She resisted, he persisted, and eventually he got the opportunity to work with her when the popular Guinean jeli Sékouba Bambino Diabaté invited her to sing a duet with him for his album Kassa (Sterns 1997). That experience convinced her of how much she could do with a good producer in a modern recording studio, but another two years passed before she and Sylla made her first full album for international release on CD.

Kita Kan (Sterns 1999) was a triumph. Produced in Paris, it was unlike any prior album of jeliya. In addition to the traditional Mandé instruments – kora, ngoni, bala, gita and djembé – the exquisite arrangements employed electric guitars in several pieces, horns in others, and, in three songs of breath-taking splendour, a string orchestra. In each setting, and in various styles, Kandia Kouyaté was in full command of her art, her voice resonant and her delivery supple and purposeful. Kita Kan was (and still is), as the British music magazine fRoots put it, “the celebratory showcase of a true diva.”

It was followed three years later by the equally impressive Biriko (Sterns 2002). Working with Sylla and a somewhat smaller number of musicians this time in Abidjan and Paris, Kandia again enlarged her repertoire and stylistic range, singing one song accompanied only by a pair of acoustic guitars, bringing the percussion forward for dance numbers, and here and there using mixed supporting voices to marvellous effect. According to the BBC, Biriko “pulses with integrity and passion, and exudes a deep, reassuring strength.”

Kandia’s next recordings were for two albums entitled Mandekalou: The Art and Soul of the Mande Griots. It had long been Ibrahima Sylla’s ambition to bring the greatest living Mandé jelew together to celebrate the history and culture of the Mandé people, and this he accomplished in 2004. Among the 20 singers and instrumentalists who gathered in Bamako were Sékouba Bambino Diabaté, Kasse Mady Diabaté, Bako Dagnon, Djelimady Tounkara, Djessou Mory Kanté, and, of course, Kandia Kouyaté.

Shortly after that grand summit meeting, Kandia suffered a stroke. Her recovery was slow and difficult, and for seven years she hardly spoke or sang. Even after regaining her strength she considered herself retired. By that time Ibrahima Sylla was in failing health, but he had not lost his ardour for her voice or his awe of her aura, and so in 2011 he visited her home in Bamako and convinced her to return to the recording studio. Lamentably, he did not live to complete the album. He died in 2013, and his daughter Binetou finished the project together with François Bréant, who had worked with Sylla on such recording landmarks as Salif Keita’s Soro (Sterns 1987) and Thione Seck’s Orientation (Sterns 2005). 

Kandia Kouyaté 2015 - Interview (French) 

This new album was made only because of Sylla,” says Kandia. “I had been ill and Sylla was gravely ill, but he was always there [in the studio], encouraging me. He asked me to sing everything I knew, everything that was in my head. I said 'I know nothing. I’ve forgotten everything.' But he insisted. 'Tomorrow it will come back,' he said.”

And it did. Her voice, darker and richer than when it first carried her to fame more than 30 years ago, has an authority that arises from a very deep well of wisdom and spirit. It is the voice of a true ngara. Renascence is Kandia’s resounding declaration of personal and artistic rebirth.

Ken Braun (with thanks to Lucy Durán)

1. Koala Boumba 

Vocals - Kandia Kouyaté
Backing vocals - Hadja Kouyaté, Manian Demba & Nanakoul Kouyaté
Acoustic guitar - Fadiala Diawara
Electric guitar - Djely Moussa Kouyaté
Kora - Djely Moussa Condé
Balafon - Lansiné Kouyaté
Bolon - Amadou Sodia
Karignan & yaraba - Mamadou Sacko
Trillian bass & keyboards - François Bréant

The epic journey of the Kouyatés’ ancestors, Kandia’s own lineage, who came from Guinea and settled in Kita, Mali. From there they spread outwards, including to Sikasso, also in Mali, to Burkina Faso and beyond to France and the USA. While they are all children of Yamadi Kouyaté, the descendants of Djeli Mamadou Kouyaté stayed in Kita, and those of Djeli Sotigui Kouyaté went to Bamako, where they were welcomed and provided for by the elders. They did not accept division but always advocated cohesion and unity. Kandia pays tribute to the late Sotigui Kouyaté, the Burkinabé actor who died in 2010 and was a big loss to the Kouyaté family and the world of art. Kandia urges her fellow Kouyaté griots to cultivate unity and brotherhood.

2. Mali Ba

Vocals - Kandia Kouyaté
Backing vocals - Hadja Kouyaté
Guitars - Djely Moussa Kouyaté
Bass - Fadiala Diawara
Percussion & keyboards - François Bréant

“This is dedicated to Mali, our great country, on the 50th anniversary of its Independence”. In this vibrant tribute to Mali’s past and present political leaders, Kandia invites Malians, young, old, men and women alike, to get up and work harder for their country. She urges them to remember and not to let down the men and women who fought with bravery and courage against colonisation. She sings about the joy that both independence and later democracy brought to the people of Mali.

3. Kassi Doundo (the crying rooster)

Vocals - Kandia Kouyaté
Backing vocals - Hadja Kouyaté, Manian Demba & Nanakoul Kouyaté
Guitars - Djély Moussa Kouyaté
Bass - Fadiala Diawara
Tama - Mamadou Sacko
Triangle, shaker & keyboards - François Bréant

“Oh, what a sight, seeing a nice young man at the entrance of the family compound! Listen, people of Djenne, have you not heard of Bara Koita? He is like the rain needed for seeds to grow. Bara, you are the pride of the Koita and Cissé families and of people wherever you go. Blessed son of Babarou Koita Danbour and Binta Cissé, you carry a heavy load for others. I call on Bara Koita on my way to Djenne, on my way to Bamako and on my way to France. There are not many people of trust and compassion left in this world. Having such a great person around, even if he lives in solitude, is much better than all the silver and gold in this world.”

4. Mogoya Douman (a beautiful relationship)

Vocals - Kandia Kouyaté
Acoustic guitar - Fadiala Diawara
Electric guitar - Djely Moussa Kouyaté
Bass - Fadiala Diawara
Ngoni - Badjé Tounkara
Djembé & karignan - Mamadou Sacko
Triangle & keyboards - François Bréant

A praise song to Seydou Sidibé, a Fula patron from Biriko, Mali. “I will follow my patron Seydou Sidibé from Biriko and enjoy myself. You have everyone’s respect in Biriko. I will follow the Sidibés of Biriko. Not all men are real men, but my patron Seydou is a real man. You have become a father-figure for many here in Mali and in America. When you are a good person, you become everyone’s friend. You are most blessed; you have been kind to me and so have your wife and children. Thank you for your generosity and kindness.”

5. Dakolo

Vocals - Kandia Kouyaté
Koras : Djely Moussa Condé
Bendir & ghatam : François Bréant

In praise of Mamadou Lah (aka Dakolo), a patron who passed away in November 2014 at the age of only 35. Wealthy and famously generous, he donated freely to the poor and to the griots of Mali. Each year he helped many Muslims make their pilgrimage to Mecca. When he died the whole country mourned and he was the topic in local and social media for many weeks after. Kandia thanks him for all that he did and especially for his kindness to the poor.

6. Konoba Doundo (a large bird)

Vocals - Kandia Kouyaté
Backing vocals - Hadja Kouyaté, Manian Demba & Nanakoul Kouyaté
Acoustic guitar - Fadiala Diawara
Electric guitar - Djely Moussa Kouyaté
Guitare électrique - Djely Moussa Condé
Bass - Fadiala Diawara
Balafon - Lansiné Kouyaté
Ngoni - Badjé Tounkara
Bongos, shaker & keyboards - François Bréant

“The death of a loved one causes pain, and the void left is hard to bear. But God is good and kind.” Kandia remembers and praises the kindness of Batafin Soumano, her late great-aunt whom, as a mark of affection, she refers to as “Lagaré”, meaning “the youngest of the siblings” or, by extension, “favourite”. She likens Batafin to a big and powerful bird, as she was a great ngara, a mastersinger yet very discreet and one who could never willingly deceive anyone. Batafin was the wife of Fily Dabo Sissoko, an early Malian writer and prominent political figure of the pre-independence years. He fought alongside Modibo Keita, the first president of Mali, for independence from France. Following political disagreements between them, Fily Dabo was imprisoned in Northern Mali, where he died in 1964. He played a big part in the recent history of Mali.

7. Tiè faring (Souri) (brave men)

Vocals - Kandia Kouyaté
Backing vocals - Manian Demba, Nanakoul Kouyaté & Sekou Kouyaté
Ngonis - Badjé Tounkara
Calabass, karignan & yaraba - Mamadou Sacko
Trillian bass, timbales & keyboards - François Bréant

Dedicated to Sory and the brave Fula men of Biriko. Kandia sings that when the cowards run away their excuse is they do not wish to be a vulture’s lunch. “Let me call the brave Fula men from Marna. I am addressing the real Fula warriors, the mighty blacksmiths and the powerful griots of Biriko who were honourable men and who did so much for my grandfather”.

8. Sadjougoulé (ill health)

Kandia Kouyaté: on location 2015 (photo courtesy Binetou Sylla)

Kandia Kouyate 2015 - CLIP Sadjougoulé

Vocals - Kandia Kouyaté
Backing vocals - Hadja Kouyaté, Manian Demba & Nanakoul Kouyaté
Guitars - Djely Moussa Kouyaté
Bass - Fadiala Diawara
Kora - Djely Moussa Condé
Balafon - Lansiné Kouyaté
Percussion & keyboards - François Bréant

“Don’t cry, Kandia. A person has no other enemy but illness.” Kandia recalls the health issues which prevented her from performing. “This life is for a short period. When I think about yesterday and look at myself today, I praise God for my life and His good deeds. I am grateful to all my jatigiw (patrons), to the authorities, to Morocco and to all the people in Europe and Asia who helped me to recover. I will not cry because I have children and people to lean on. You find your true friends when you are in need.” She then quotes from the Quran the story of prophet Ayyub (Job). who survived many afflictions, including disease, but remained steadfast to God. Because of this God restored his health and wealth.

9. Mandjala (take off the headscarf!)

Vocals - Kandia Kouyaté
Backing vocals - Hadja Kouyaté
Bass - Fadiala Diawara
Balafon - Lansiné Kouyaté
Djembé & dounumba - Mamadou Sacko
Percussion & keyboards - François Bréant

A light-hearted song in which Kandia invites all women to take off their headscarves and join her in celebrating the arrival of Ami Touré. “Ami Touré, descendant of Mandé Mory, daughter of Fakaba and Fanta. Let’s all take off our headscarves and celebrate, whether we are friends with her or not.” This gesture, like that of men taking off their hats for a woman, symbolises respect.

10. Camara Donfoli (the dance of the Camaras)

Vocals - Kandia Kouyaté
Backing vocals - Hadja Kouyaté, Manian Demba & Nanakoul Kouyaté
Narrator - Aliou Diabaté
Acoustic guitar - Fadiala Diawara
Guitar - Fadiala Diawara
Kora - Djely Moussa Condé
Balafon - Lansiné Kouyaté
Ngoni - Badjé Tounkara
Bolon - Amadou Sodia
Djembé & dounumba - Mamadou Sacko

Concerning the genealogy and significance of the Camara family name, common in the Mandé area of West Africa. “Ka mara” means to keep the hut or the compound and its content, including the people and the fetish. “Today is a great day in Mandé. Come on and dance with the Camaras, because this is their day”. Kandia sings the history of the Cameras through their journey across Guinea and Mali. It began with Mansa Kiran, the ancestor of Niani Massa Kara who gave birth to six sons. Three of them went to Guinea and settled in the Bouré region, and the other three went to live in Mali, in Kaarta and Siby where Kama-djan himself is from. “Praises and respect are due to all Camara children in Mandé. If you know where you come from, you will know where you’re going”.

Wilfred Willey

Recorded at Studio Bogolan, Bamako, Mali & Studio SoYuz, Paris, France
Sound engineer: Lionel Boutang
Musical production and arrangements by: François Bréant
Produced by: Ibrahima Sylla
Additional production: Binetou Sylla
Coordinator: Sékou Kouyaté
Management : Charlotte Kalala
All words and music by Kandia Kouyaté
Published by Sterns Music Publ.
Photos courtesy: Binetou Sylla
Thanks to Tapa Sylla, Sékou Kouyaté, François Bréant, Julien Dayan and Robert Urbanus.

Je remercie Allah Le tout Puissant et toutes personnes qui m'ont soutenu et aidé pour cet album, ma famille, ma mère, mes diatiguiws, mes amis et tous ceux qui m'ont aidé dans l'épreuve de ma maladie.

Kandia Kouyaté

Kandia Kouyaté in interview 2015 (photo courtesy Binetou Sylla)

16 Jul 2015

Amadou Balake - In Conclusion (his final recordings)

Amadou Balaké (08/03/1944 - 27/08/2014) 

(Photo: Florent Mazzoleni)


After a career that spanned a half-century in which he became the most famous musician from Burkina Faso and a legend of African popular music, Amadou Balaké died on August 27th 2014 in Ouagadougou at the age of 70. This album contains his final recordings.

Bar Konon Mousso: YouTube taster

Born Amadou Traoré in Burkina Faso when it was still the French West African colony of Upper Volta, he was given the name Balaké by Guinean fans who especially liked the way he sang the Mande classic of that title. By that time (the late 1960s) he had been performing as an itinerant singer, guitarist and percussionist all around West Africa.
(Photo courtesy: Florent Mazzoleni)
 On returning to his homeland in 1970, Amadou Balaké sang with a succession of groups in the capital, Ouagadougou. Building on widely popular Afro-Cuban and funk styles as well as the Mande repertoire modernized by such bands as Guinea’s Bembeya Jazz and Mali’s Rail Band, he incorporated local warba dance rhythms into his music and sang primarily in the Mossi language of Burkina Faso, establishing a distinct Burkinabé sound.

Soundcloud: free download - 3 track edited taster

It was a sound that traveled well as Balaké resumed his roving. He recorded his first album in Accra, Ghana, in 1976; his second in Lagos, Nigeria; the next two in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and then his classic salsa album, Amadou Balaké à New York, in that city with some of its top Latin sidemen in 1979. He was based in Paris for most of the ‘80s but eventually settled in Ouagadougou.

Amadou Balaké, Ouaga 1994 (Photo courtesy: Rob & Emmy Lokin)
 In 2000 Ibrahima Sylla, the pre-eminent African record producer, invited Balaké to join the international salsa supergroup Africando — a match made in Spanish Harlem, one might say, considering that Balaké preceded Africando in working with Latin musicians in New York. With Africando Balaké recorded four albums and toured far and wide.

Africando (Photo courtesy: Syllart Productions / Sterns Music)
 He was still giving weekly shows in Ouagadougou when the French music journalist Florent Mazzoleni met him there in 2013 and produced the recordings that would prove to be the old master’s last testament.
Accompanied by young local musicians, he revisited some of his favorite songs, including his namesake, “Balaké”, which he had never previously recorded. Captured mostly in one take with few overdubs, these tracks present a performer seasoned by decades of experience and in full command of his art.

In Conclusion (album: iTunes)

vocal: Amadou Balaké
guitar: Michel ‘Haute Tension’ Diansoro
ngoni, percussion: Boubacar ‘Papa’ Djiga
balafon, percussion: Sanou Dara
bass, bass ngoni: Luc Kyendrebeogo
drums: Jean ‘Bosco’ Sorogo
trumpet: Georges Théodore ‘Alpha’ Vindou
saxophone: Yizih
organ: Father Ben
backing vocals: Sanou Dara, Moustapha Maïga, Aïda Dao
recorded: Eliezer Oubda
produced: Florent Mazzoleni

Amadou Balaké (Photo courtesy: Florent Mazzoleni)

14 May 2015

Thione Seck - a 'gewel' for Senegal

Now ready for download and streaming, six crucial albums from Thione Seck.

Thione Seck is a gewel — a griot of the Wolof people of Senegal; by family legacy one who must remember Wolof history and wisdom and stand ready when called upon to intone them for grandees, visitors and the general public. He is also one of Senegal’s greatest singers and there’s a strong, clear connection between the two. 

Thione Seck: visting Sterns, London circa 1999
Thione Seck was born to sing, and in this case the phrase is not a cliché. His great-grandfather was a gewel in the court of King Lat Dior of Cayor, his grandfather was a famous itinerant gewel, and his father was anointed a singer of the psalms of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, the Muslim mystic and Senegalese national hero. Singing is in Thione’s genes. Naturally, his brother, Mapenda Seck, is also a gewel and a popular singer.

So Thione (pronounced chōn) was raised and tutored in the gewel repertoire. But in Dakar, the city of his birth in 1955, he grew up with lots more to absorb: the muezzin’s call to prayer, the Arabic pop picked up on shortwave radio from across the Sahara, the Bollywood musicals everyone went to see in downtown cinemas, the Latin records he could buy in a shop on the funky side of the city, and the live sounds of hometown celebrities, especially the Star Band de Dakar. When he was 16 years old he started an amateur group with Mapenda and friends who played the indigenous xalam lute and sabaar and tama drums but did not restrict themselves to traditional Wolof music. Within two years he was singing with a Star Band offshoot called Orchestre Baobab. 

Orchestre Baobab circa 1982, Seck in the middle
Baobab blended a variety of local and foreign styles into something like Senegalese salsa, in which the voice of the Muslim Wolof gewel was as elemental as that of the Santería santero in Afro-Cuban music, and so young Thione Seck was brought in to understudy Laye M’boup, the gewel among the group’s three original singers. A year later, 1974, M’boup died in a car crash and Seck was promoted to the band’s frontline. He immediately made a strong impression on audiences, not only with his marvellously supple voice, which could be soft and intimate one moment and plangent and soaring the next, but also with his words, which were admired for their poetry, pith, and moral integrity. These qualities did not impede his popularity; he wrote and sang some of Baobab’s biggest hits in the years when it was the hottest band in Dakar.

Musician credits for the 'Bamba' album as released by Sterns in 1980
Even so, after recording half the tracks that would be released in the Sterns album 'Bamba', Thione Seck left in 1979 to revive his first group, which would henceforth be called Raam Daan and would home in on a neo-traditional Wolof style, keeping the ancient drums and lutes but adding electric guitars, bass and keyboards. This energetic dance style was called mbalax, and along with Youssou N’Dour and El Hadji Faye of Étoile de Dakar and Omar Pene of Super Diamono, Thione Seck was one of its inventors and early stars.

Thione Seck & Raam Daan released a series of increasingly successful cassettes in Senegal, culminating in 'Dieuleul!', which led to the album 'Le Pouvoir d’un Coeur Pur' being recorded in Paris and released internationally by Sterns in 1988. After more Senegalese cassettes, Seck and his band returned to Paris for the two Ibrahima Sylla productions that Sterns issued on one CD, 'Daaly', in 1997. Seck continued this pattern of recording for local labels in Dakar and for Syllart and Sterns in Paris, where Raam Daan was sometimes augmented by studio musicians. The two excellent 'Demb' cassettes released by KSF in 1998 exemplify the spare but powerful Dakar sound, propelled by percussion and dominated by Thione’s thrilling voice. 'Orientation', the album begun the following year in Dakar and developed over the next three years in Paris, Cairo and Madras, has a richer, more ornate sound that evinces Seck’s love of Arabic and Indian music.

From the back cover of 'Le Pouvoir D'Un Coeur Pur' released by Sterns in 1988
But wherever and however it is made, Thione Seck’s art is grounded in his heritage as a griot — one whose role in society is to teach, entertain and inspire. We need not understand Wolof to hear in the exquisite nuances of his voice that he is a griot par excellence. 


Orchestra Baobab – Bamba (1980 (1993))  

Thione Seck et Le Raam Daan - ...Dieulleul! (1988)

Thione Seck - Le Pouvoir D'un Coeur Pur (1988)

Thione Seck – Demb (1995) 

Thione Seck – Daaly (1997)

Thione Ballago Seck - Demb II (1998)


2 Apr 2015

Verckys & Editions Veve International

The most comprehensive digital reissue of the
Éditions Vévé catalogue yet undertaken

The man known as Verckys is one of the most colourful characters in Congolese music and though perhaps not as famous internationally as some of his associates, he has made an outsized impact on his country’s music and music business. He was born Georges Kiamuangana in Kisantu, the Belgian Congo, in 1944. His well-to-do father sent him to Roman Catholic schools and the church of the native Kimbanguist Protestant sect. In the church band he displayed his musical aptitude on guitar, piano, flute and clarinet before graduating to saxophone. He was still a teenager when he left home to pursue a musical career in Léopoldville (Kinshasa).

An outstanding saxophonist, Kiamuangana was strongly influenced by the robust, funky sound of the American King Curtis, whose name he heard as “Vurkis”. Upon being corrected, he chose Verckys as his stage name. Playing in a couple of minor bands, he caught the attention of the veteran bandleader Dewayon, who recruited him into his Orchestre Conga Jazz. Two years later Dewayon’s erstwhile partner, Franco, wooed Verckys away from Conga Jazz to play in OK Jazz, the top band in the land.

In addition to being a talented instrumentalist, composer and arranger, Verckys was a showman whose dance moves and stage antics won him avid fans of his own. So self-confident was he that in 1968 he started a record company, Éditions Vévé, and persuaded Youlou Mabiala and several other members of OK Jazz to record for him in breach of their contracts with Franco. When Franco found out about it he fired the lot but then relented in consideration of 40% of the new company’s earnings. This episode convinced Verckys that he no longer needed Franco; he left OK Jazz to form Orchestre Vévé.

Verckys modelled Orchestre Vévé on the band he’d just quit and trained its relatively young and inexperienced members to achieve that big, compelling sound with fewer musicians. He himself was, of course, a featured soloist, but he did not slight the other instrumentalists or the singers, Matadidi ‘Mario’ Mabele, Loko ‘Djeskain’ Massengo and Isaac ‘Sinatra’ Saakoul. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s this band released dozens of singles, including the big hits Mfumbwa, Mama Djele, and Chérie Anna, which contains possibly the first recording of the exclamation “Soukous!” The most acclaimed of the early Vévé records was Nakomitunaka (“I ask myself”), an uncharacteristically pensive song that ponders questions about race, nationality and religion.

In 1973 the three Vévé singers left to form Trio Madjesi & Orchestre Sosoliso, but Verckys had no trouble replacing them, and Orchestre Vévé wasn’t his only band; he also led Orchestre Kiam and could draw from a pool of musicians he had signed to Éditions Vévé. One of the savviest talent scouts and entrepreneurs in the Congolese music business, he discovered or put together several of the best bands of the Second Generation: Les Grands Maquisards (with Ntesa Dalienst and Dizzy Mandjeku), Bella Bella (led by the brothers Émile and Vangu Soki), Lipua Lipua (with Nyboma Mwan’dido and Daly Kimoko) and Empire Bakuba (Pépé Kallé on the very large throne).

Verckys continued to play with Orchestre Vévé, recording such classics as Bilobela and Vivita, but he focused increasingly on producing records and expanding his business rather than performing. The studio that he built in Kinshasa in 1972 attracted artists under contract to labels other than Éditions Vévé, and Vévé Centre, the six-storey entertainment complex he erected in the heart of the Matongé nightlife district in 1978, often presented the pre-eminent Second Generation band, Zaiko Langa Langa, as well as rising stars such as Koffi Olomide, and in these ways Verckys became as important to the bustling Congolese/Zairean music industry as Tabu Ley Rochereau and Franco. In fact he succeeded Franco as president of the Zairean musicians’ union and produced Tabu Ley’s first records with Mbilia Bel.

In the 1980s Verckys produced bestselling albums by Victoria Eleison and Anti-Choc and creating Langa Langa Stars, but there was little he could do to stem the flood of bootleg cassettes that was destroying record industries throughout Africa. Many of the artists he had worked with moved to Europe, but he maintained his base in Kinshasa, even as the Zairean economy slowly collapsed. When the Mobutu dictatorship conceded to economic and political reforms in the early ’90s Verckys began publishing two newspapers and planning to run for elective office. Before long, however, the reforms were quashed and the country slid into civil war.

A survivor as well as a colourful character, Verckys still lives in Kinshasa and remains involved in the Congolese music business. His choice of Sterns Music to issue his exceedingly important digital catalogue is a great honour.

Text: Ken Braun 


Orchestre Bella Bella - Bella Bella 26: Zamba 1 & 2
Orchestre Kiam - Sakumuna 15: Memi 1 & 2
Orchestre Les Kamale - Fuka Fuka 04: Lokumu Na Yo 1 & 2
Orchestre Lipua Lipua - Sakumuna 14: Nala 1 & 2
Orchestre Lipua Lipua - Sakumuna 18: Lemba Lemba 1 & 2
Orchestre Lipua Lipua - VEVE 148: Mokili Ebeta Ngai Fimbo / Kuelo
Orchestre Lipua Lipua - VEVE 189: Mombasa 1 / Mombasa 2
Orchestre Zaiko Langa Langa - Fololo Ya Nzembo
Verckys & Orchestre Veve - VEVE 211: Assamba Ya Beya 1 / Assamba Ya Beya 2
Verckys et son ensemble feat. Youlou - c'est du BOUM!!-single/id970581208


Tabu Ley Rochereau - Evvi Presente "Le Seigneur" Rochereau: Maze
Tabu Ley Rochereau - Evvi Presente "Le Seigneur" Rochereau: Mpeve A N'Longo
Afro International - Effacer Le Tableau (Verckys Present Afro International)
Desuza et Dikoël & l'Orchestre Immortel Veve - Verckys présente Desuza et Dikoël & l'Orchestre Immortel Veve
Emeneya Emerite et le Victoria Eleison - Presser Te
Emeneya et Victoria Eleison - Verckys Presente Victoria et Emeneya
Emeneya, Orch. Victoria Eleison - Mokosa
Empire Bakuba - Verckys présente L'Empire Bakuba de Pepa Kallé, Dilu Dilumona et Papy Tex
Evoloko Jocker et le Langa Langa Stars - Doné Bis
Langa Langa Stars et Choc Stars - Verckys présente: Langa Langa Stars et Choc Stars
Langa-Langa Stars - Verckys Present Langa-Langa Stars Vol. 2
L'Empire Bakuba feat. Pepe Kalle & Emauro - Verckys présente L'Empire Bakuba
L'Orchestre Minzoto Wella-Wella - Vol.2, Danse Caneton a L'Aisement
Victoria Eleison - Sango Mabala Commission
Youlou Mabiala - Le Verdict


Verckys - Edition Veve 1969-1972
Verckys - Edition Veve 1972-1978
Various Artists - Edition Veve 1969 - 1978
Various Artists - Edition Veve 1972 - 1975
Various Artists - Edition Veve
Orchestre Lipua-Lipua feat. Nyboma - Nyboma, la voix qui console

5 Jan 2014

Tribute to Ibrahima Sory Sylla 1956 – 2013

On learning of the death of Ibrahima Sylla on Monday, the renowned Senegalese singer and humanitarian Youssou N’Dour remarked “He was a nobleman.  He was a visionary.”  Such accolades are being voiced this week by numerous African musicians, many of whom owe their careers to Mr. Sylla, who has been Africa’s most important record producer for 35 years. The worldwide enthusiasm for modern African music might have risen in these same years even if Mr. Sylla had become an economist (as his father intended), but it would have been very different without his keen ear for talent, vivid imagination for how music could sound, and suave skill at developing and presenting artists.    

Ibrahima Sory Sylla was born on April 2nd, 1956, in Kaolack, Senegal, where his father and uncle were chiefs of the Diakanké clan.  His mother came from Mali, and he grew up speaking Mandinké, Bambara, Fula and Wolof.  His earliest memories (as he told this writer) were of hearing famous griots  chroniclers, poets and musicians  whom his father had summoned to perform at the family estate.  He attended a French school in Dakar until he was 13 years old, when his father sent him to a Koranic school in Chad.  After a year there, he accompanied his father on travels throughout West and Central Africa before going to Paris to study economics.

In Paris he spent fewer hours studying than hanging out in a record shop where, within four years, he bought 6,000 new or used Cuban records, some of which he taped onto cassette compilations to give to fellow Latin-music aficionados.  Upon receiving his degree and returning to Senegal in 1979, he asked an esteemed griot to tell his father of his desire to go into the record business. Al Hassan Sylla misinterpreted the griot’s song to mean that his son wanted to be a musician, whereupon he slapped the griot and refused to speak to Ibrahima for three years.  Undeterred, the young man got a job at a Dakar studio where popular bands such as Orchestre Baobab and Youssou N’Dour’s Étoile de Dakar recorded.  He and a partner started a company called Jambaar (“Valiant”) and produced two albums by Orchestre Baobab which they later licensed to Sterns Music for international release under the title Bamba.

Back in Paris, Ibrahima Sylla opened Kubaney Musique, immediately the best place in France to find all sorts of Latin and African records.  Paris, at that time, was becoming a mecca for musicians from around the world, and as soon as Mr. Sylla established Syllart Productions in 1981, he had his pick of artists from many African countries.  Some had recordings they wanted to release in Europe, others wanted to make new records, and Mr. Sylla was in a position to work with the best of them.  Several of his earliest productions were for young performers of the hard-rocking Senegalese style called mbalax, most notably Thione Seck and Ismael Lo, but he never restricted himself to one style or nationality.  Among his successes in the early ‘80s were albums by the Ivorian reggae singer Alpha Blondy and by the Zairean soukous collective known as 4 Étoiles.

Then came Soro. Salif Keita was already famous in his native Mali, where he had been the Rail Band’s lead singer, and in Ivory Coast, where he led the border-crossing Ambassadeurs, before Mr. Sylla brought him, in 1986, into a new 48-track studio in Paris.  He engaged François Bréant and Jean-Philippe Rykiel to arrange Keita’s songs for multiple voices, African drums, Euro-American horns, electric instruments and synthesizers.  The result was music that sounded both ancient and very modern, even futuristic.  Released in the U.K. by Sterns Music, Soro elicited rave reviews and heavy airplay, prompting Island Records to acquire the rights for the rest of the world.  Salif Keita became one of the first global stars of what would soon be called world music, and Ibrahima Sylla’s reputation grew.

He was sought out by artists with well-established careers, including Baaba Maal, Pépé Kallé, Zaiko Langa Langa, Sam Mangwana and even the great Franco.  Mr. Sylla had the contacts and resources to get them into the best studios, bring in the top arrangers and session musicians, and make deals to have their records distributed in the markets that mattered most to them.  He was not a musician himself, but he understood a lot about music and how to record it so that listeners could enjoy it the way he enjoyed it: to the fullest.  He was a man of ideas, too; he inspired artists to try new things.  Asked what the most important responsibility of a producer was, he said “To challenge, challenge, challenge.”  The majestic griotte Kandia Kouyaté had never seen the need to make records, so profitable were her private concerts in Mali, until Mr. Sylla persuaded her to sing with a classical European orchestra for her stunningly beautiful debut album.  Under Mr. Sylla’s guidance, Guinea’s biggest star, Sékouba Bambino, made records that ranged from big-band salsa to electro-pop to traditional Mande jaliya.  Aware of Thione Seck’s love of Arabic and Indian pop, Mr. Sylla went to great lengths to take this outstanding Senegalese singer, along with the brilliant French arranger François Bréant, to Cairo and Madras to make an extraordinary album, Orientation.

Ibrahima Sylla also created bands out of concepts.  For the two Mandekalou CDs he convened summit meetings of the most acclaimed Mande griots in Guinea and Mali in purely traditional settings.
 His notion of bringing back the Congolese rumba of the 1950s and ‘60s as acoustic dance music for the 21st century led to Kékélé, a Congolese supergroup that delighted European and American audiences that had never heard that graceful old style before.  Ever the Latin music aficionado, he dreamed up Africando and made it real by taking several of his favourite African singers and the Malian arranger Boncana Maiga to New York to record with the hottest Latin instrumentalists in that city’s musical élite.  He was, however, as surprised as anyone when Africando caused a sensation in the United States.  The single “Yay Boy” shot to No. 1 on Spanish radio in New York and stayed there for six weeks in 1996 — the only song in an African language ever to do anything like that — and it was a hit in Miami and Los Angeles as well.  It achieved another crossover five years later, when “Yay Boy” was sampled prominently in a hip-hop hit that cannot be named.  Mr. Sylla produced a total of eight Africando albums, ending with Viva Africando, which Sterns Africa released just this past October.  It turned out to be his last project.
Mr. Sylla had begun work on Viva Africando in failing health after undergoing two major surgical operations.  He was in hospice care in his home in Paris when he died on December 30th at the age of 57.  He is survived by his widow, Tapa Sylla, and five children: Binetou, Fanta, Hassan, Sadio and Yasmina.  He was laid to rest Saturday 4 January 2014 in Dakar, Senegal.

1 Nov 2012

The Griot's Craft

Sekouba 'Bambino' Diabaté by Ken Braun
On the release of The Griot's Craft (STCD1117) in November 2012 

On CD  iTunes UK  iTunes US

Sékouba Diabaté is, as his surname suggests, a jeli. A jeli is a griot of the Mande people of West Africa; a special person who has inherited the responsibility of remembering history. From his parents and grandparents he learns Mande history and genealogy, and with practiced skill he recounts this knowledge in oratory, epic poetry and song, reminding listeners of the tragedies and glories of the past and the lessons to be applied to the present and the future. The Diabaté name (spelled Jobarteh in some countries) denotes one of the most celebrated West African jeli clans. 

Sékouba Diabaté was born and raised in northeastern Guinea, near the border with Mali, at the heart of the ancient Mande Empire, whose history goes back eight centuries, as does its canon of poems and songs. By the time he was 16 years old Sekouba was famous in his native region for his command of the canon and his strong, soaring voice. His reputation reached Conakry, the coastal capital of Guinea, and in 1983, when he was 19, he was asked to join Bembeya Jazz National, the pre-eminent modern Guinean band. Most of the members of Bembeya Jazz were in their 40s, so young Sékouba was dubbed Bambino – the Italian word for “baby”. Why Italian? He’s not sure, but Bambino has been his professional name ever since.

After eight years with Bembeya Jazz, Bambino embarked on a solo career. Producer Ibrahima Sylla brought him to Sterns, first to sing with Africando, the multinational salsa band, and then to record Kassa, an album of contemporary African pop. Soon after that CD’s 1997 release, I had the good fortune to hear Bambino in a more traditional mode. 

I was invited to a party in New York, given by the Guinean Ambassador to the United Nations in honour of the new Malian Ambassador to that august assembly. I should have known not to show up at 8 o’clock, regardless of what the invitation said: almost no one was there. Over the next couple of hours other guests arrived, slowly filling the ballroom with voluminous robes and headdresses in dazzling colours, making me feel conspicuously white and dull.

Eventually the host and the guest of honour entered and made their rounds of the room before giving speeches. It was nearly midnight when dinner was served, and it was only after the last dishes had been cleared away that musicians set up at one end of the room and began playing. Beautiful music – a koni (lute), a pair of koras (harps), and a pair of balas (xylophones) – but it was a long and stately piece that, following a rich meal, had a lulling effect. I wasn’t the only person who appeared to be dozing. 

Then suddenly Bambino strode onto the floor and the energy level in the place surged by a magnitude of ten (maybe eleven). He looked splendid in a shiny purple and gold robe. He needed no microphone to be heard resoundingly above the instruments in this large room full of people, even as the instrumentalists visibly and audibly turned their output up several notches. Everyone was transfixed.

After a rousing song that got the audience clapping rhythmically, Bambino shifted into an epic. Without understanding his Maninka words, I could see in his gestures and hear in the way he raised and then dramatically lowered his voice that he was telling a story. He had everyone’s rapt attention as he walked over to the ambassador from Mali and sang directly to him, the words whirling off his tongue with rising fervor until everyone burst into applause and the ambassador stood up and placed a handful of cash on Bambino’s shoulder. 

Bambino began every song with his arms stretched wide, as if to say “This is for all of you”. Then, well into the song, he would approach a man or a woman in the audience, a couple or a family with children, and fix his gaze on theirs. To me, an outsider, it felt almost too intimate and almost too bold, but, clearly, those being serenaded so magnificently felt privileged. Inevitably, out came the money – which, I believe, bespoke genuine appreciation. One gentleman in a finely-tailored European business suit pulled from his breast pocket not only a wad of banknotes but also a white handkerchief which he dabbed at his eyes as Bambino sang to him.

I had seen similar performances and gratuities many times in Africa, but never on such an advanced level. Here was a trueborn jeli at work in front of bona-fide aristocrats – people with long pedigrees, accustomed to employing jelis. A man at my table leaned toward me and said, sotto voce, "Bambino has done his research. Before he entered this room he must have looked at us and identified all the important families represented here tonight. He knows, better than they, all the great deeds done by their ancestors. That's what he's singing for all to hear."

Bambino’s diligence and skill paid off. Those were not single dollars that his assistant picked up from the floor, but $20, $50 and $100 bills, and by the evening’s end there were lots of them.

The next day Bambino (wearing jeans and a T-shirt now) showed up at Sterns. "I've bought a car," he said, "but I don't have enough money left to ship it to Conakry. I need $2,000. Can you help me?"

My colleagues and I went downstairs and out onto Broadway to see the car. It was a sky-blue Cadillac – not new, but big and fine. Back in my office I called my boss in London, who laughed and said, “Yes, yes, give him the money.” 

A couple of years later, when Bambino returned to New York to lend his voice again to Africando, I asked him about his car. He grinned and said "Everybody in Conakry knows Bambino's American car."

Ken Braun, New Jersey 2012

Players on The Griot's Craft

Sékouba “Bambino” Diabaté: lead vocal
Amie Dante, Mba Kouyaté, Alama Kanté, Mama Keïta: backing vocals
Djessou Mory Kanté: lead guitar
Kerfala Kanté: bass
Djely Mory Diawara: percussion
Kaou Kouyaté, Badie Tounkara: ngoni
Arouna Samake: kamele ngoni
Abdoulaye Koussougbe: percussion
Kaba Kouyaté: balafon
Kabinet Kanté: guitar
Papus Dioubaté: guitar, bass