Horoya Band National 'Were were' from Authenticite: The Syliphone Years
These regional orchestras were known as Orchestres Federaux, and together with Guinea's Orchestres Nationaux they were at the vanguard of musical production in Africa during the independence era. The Syliphone label's fame grew from these orchestras, and was elevated by the high calibre of the musicians who appeared on the recordings – artists such as Sékou "Diamond Fingers" Diabaté, Demba Camara, Kouyaté Sory Kandia, and, from South Africa, Miriam Makeba. Guinea's musicians toured all over the continent, as well as to Europe, the USA, Russia, Cuba, and South America.
Bembeya Jazz National
Bembeya Jazz National 'Armee Guineenne' from The Syliphone Years
Leo Sarkisian played it frequently on his VOA programme “Music Time in Africa” and it still sounds fresh after 40 years. Sékou Diabaté’s guitar once again introduces the song, being supported by a rhythm guitar-like arrangement being played on the balafon, a traditional musical instrument akin to a xylophone. This is one the first examples of a balafon being used within modern orchestration in Guinean popular music and is thus emblematic of the authenticité campaign and cultural policies of Guinea’s government.
Bembeya Jazz National 'Mami Wata' from The Syliphone Years
1973 also marked the year that brought great tragedy upon the band. Arriving in Dakar for a series of concerts several members of the group were transported from the airport in a chauffeur-driven car. En route their vehicle was involved in an accident, overturning and seriously injuring Demba Camara. Camara died later from his injuries, plunging Guinea into national mourning. Bembeya Jazz and Africa had lost a great artist and musician. As a tribute Syliphone released Mémoire de Aboubacar Demba Camara – a LP containing many of the singer’s finest tracks. His untimely death had a deep effect on the other members of the band and for three years Bembeya Jazz neither toured nor recorded.
Balla et ses Balladins & Keletigui et ses Tambourinis
Keletigui et ses Tambourinis 'Famadenke' from The Syliphone Years
Both groups commenced recording at the Voix de la Revolution studio in Conakry in the mid 1960s, and when the Syliphone label was launched in May 1968 in the midst of a cultural revolution, their early recordings featured among the first releases. Known as the “intellectuals of Guinean music”, due to their "obsessive approach to musical research and performance", Balla et ses Balladins and Keletigui et ses Tambourinis were both a major force in Guinean music.
Balla et ses Balladins 'Sara '70' from The Syliphone Years
In 1970 a new group was formed, the Quintette Guinéenne, and were assigned to Miriam Makeba (who lived in Guinea from 1969 to 1986). All of the Quintette Guinéenne’s personnel (Sékou "Le Docteur" Diabaté, Kemo Kouyaté, Famoro Kouyaté, Amadou Thiam and Abdou Camara) were taken from Balla et ses Balladins, and they accompanied Miriam's concerts and recordings for the next two years. 1970 also saw Balla's orchestra being assigned a new lead singer, Emile "Benny" Soumah, who originally performed with Bafing Jazz, the Orchestre Federeaux of Mamou.
Miriam Makeba 'West Wind Unification' from The Guinea Years
In the early 1970s Guinean music was at its peak. As the decade progressed, however, Sékou Touré’s rule grew increasingly despotic. His measures to silence opponents were both bloody and lawless, and coup after coup, both real and alleged, beset the nation. Attempts to regain control by closing borders and banning all private trade failed, and by the 1980s Guinea had become a pariah state. The nation’s dire economic situation forced a re-think of government policy. State monopolies and socialism gave way to a gradual privatisation of government enterprises, and in 1983 President Touré offered the national orchestras the choice of continuing as state-sponsored groups or being self-funded. The orchestras chose the latter, and so after 25 years of performing as civil servants with full sponsorship they were set free to follow their own course.
The following year, however, Guinea’s liberalisation came crashing down. On March 26 1984 President Sékou Touré died quite suddenly following a heart operation. A few days after his death a military coup led by Col. Lansana Conté successfully installed a new government. Conté’s régime dismantled Guinea’s policy of authenticité and funding for the arts was slashed. Most of the orchestras and arts troupes never performed again. Balla et ses Balladins disbanded and the musicians pursued their own careers.
Guinea's golden era of musical production, an era which saw Guinean orchestras tour the world and Syliphone release over 700 songs, had come to a close. The legacy of Sékou Touré, if one can possibly ignore the gross human rights violations, is one whereby Africans regained pride in their culture after decades of neglect under colonial rule. The songs which constitute the Syliphone catalogue are a remarkable testament of a nation which proclaimed its voice and the rights of its people through the policy of authenticité. Bembeya Jazz National, Balla et ses Balladins and Keletigui et ses Tambourinis were at the forefront of this cultural revolution, and their music continues to inspire audiences around the world.