10 Mar 2011

Sterns Classic Guinean Orchestra Series

In 2004 Sterns embarked on a project to bring to the world one of the most important musical movements in Africa's post-independence history, the prodigious output of Guinea's state run record label Editions Syliphone Conakry. With the help of veritable expert Graeme Counsel and the permission of the Guinean government 5 anthologies of the giants of this musical movement have been released with another due out later in 2011. Here is an edited article encompassing the many essays produced by Graeme Counsel to accompany the CD releases where the full detailed notes and exclusive photos appear.

Guinea's Syliphone record company produced some of the finest and most important recordings of Africa's independence era.  The core of Guinea's Orchestres Nationaux include the now legendary Bembeya Jazz National, Horoya Band, Keletigui et ses Tambourinis, and Balla et ses Balladins as well as the Orchestres Federeaux, including Syli Authentic, Sombory Jazz and Camayenne Sofa. These groups battled for honours against more than 30 other Federal Orchestras in Guinea's renowned arts festivals, where a 1st Prize in the competition could launch a band to stardom.

The story of the Syliphone label is a remarkable tale of music in an era of revolutionary politics in Africa. Since its independence from France in 1958, Guinea's artists had been radicalised by an official cultural policy that sought to modernise the arts while still being faithful to the traditional roots. It was a policy called authenticité, and music was its prime focus. Under the policy each region in Guinea, some 34 in total, were represented by artistic troupes. These consisted of an orchestra, a traditional music ensemble, a choir, and a theatrical group. The government purchased new musical instruments for the orchestras, at a huge cost, and encouraged the groups to write songs about topics such as African nationalism, anti-colonialism, and anti-imperialism.

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.

The Syliphone label thus captured a moment in African history when a new nation asserted its voice and placed music at the forefront of its cultural identity. Their’s is a story that is intertwined with the political struggle for independence in Africa.


The independence movement commenced in Guinea before World War 2 aided by Sékou Touré, a young employee of the post office in Conakry. As the independence movement gathered strength President Charles de Gaulle visited the capital and in 1958 offered Guineans an opportunity to vote in a referendum on their nation’s future. With De Gaulle standing beside him Touré declared to the crowd “We prefer freedom in poverty to riches in chains”. Spurred on by this defiance Guineans were to vote overwhelmingly “non” to the referendum and on the 2nd of October 1958 Guinea became an independent nation with Sékou Touré elected as the first president.

Sékou Touré was resolute in his determination to revitalise Guinean culture, and set about introducing the radical cultural policy of authenticité. Touré ordered that the government radio station cease playing all “foreign” music and that all orchestras throughout the nation be disbanded. Prior to his decrees, Guinean bands played French and Cuban music only, but Sékou Touré told them that if they couldn’t play the music of their own country then they should stop playing altogether. “Our music should rise up from a world which once degraded it through the practice of colonial domination", he stated. Under the authenticité program, Guinea’s musicians were instructed to create a new and modern musical style, and to draw their inspiration from the nation's rich cultural heritage.. Musicians such as Balla Onivogui, Keletigui Traoré, Momo Wandel and Kerfala “Papa” Diabaté travelled far and wide teaching the new orchestras how to play the trumpet, saxophone and electric guitar, and how to arrange and write original compositions. By the early 1960s the authenticité program was in full swing.

Bembeya Jazz National
Feted by Presidents, lauded with awards and prizes – not many groups in the world can boast such a legacy that of Bembeya Jazz. Their’s is a story that is intertwined with the political struggle for independence in Africa.

With the assistance of the local governor, the Orchestre de Beyla formed to act as their region’s orchestre moderne. The core of the band was its brass section, which featured the talents of Sékou Camara and Achken Kaba on trumpets. Other members included Sékou Diabaté on guitar, Hamidou Diaouné on bass and Mory “Mangala” Condé on drums. Orchestre de Beyla received their first break in 1962 when the group were recorded by Voice of America’s Leo Sarkisian for the Tempo label. President Touré had granted Sarkisian unfettered access to Guinea’s musicians and Tempo released a total of ten LPs.

Shortly after the release of their debut LP Orchestra de Beyla became more widely known as Bembeya Jazz, taking their name from the local river which ran through Beyla. The group increased its membership by adding two carpenters to the line-up – Demba Camara and Salifou Kaba, who shared the vocals. Bembeya Jazz did not have to wait long to find new successes, which came via the national arts festivals and competitions. Bembeya Jazz were the first orchestre moderne to win the competition twice, in 1964 and 1965, a feat recognised by the awarding in 1966 of the coveted title of National Orchestra. Bembeya Jazz National thus became the first of the regional orchestras to be nationalised. As a National Orchestra they were re-located to Conakry, where, as the newest member of Guinea’s select group.
The fourth Syliphone LP was to be Bembeya Jazz’s debut for the label, and their LP featured 10 tracks. Their first Syliphone LP, however, demonstrated a maturity which their Tempo release lacked, as expressed in the confident arrangements. The classic Bembeya mixture of bold brass lines transposed with sinewy guitar solos (not to mention the sublime vocals of Demba Camara) was only a year or two away…

Bembeya Jazz followed their Syliphone LP release with a number of singles including “Armée Guinéenne” which is without doubt one of the great African recordings from the 1960s. 

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.
Not to be outdone, however, Bembeya Jazz were further propelled towards superstardom when in 1969 they released their seminal LP Regard sur le Passé, their second LP for Syliphone. Regard sur le Passé is surely one of Africa’s classic LPs, being both innovative musically and thematically. Containing just one track spread over both sides of the LP, the album is dedicated to Samori Touré, the resistance fighter who died in a Gabonese prison in 1900.

By 1973, and after recording many classics, Bembeya Jazz was now at the height of their popularity. The band had toured widely internationally and had recorded for 13 Syliphone LPs and 14 singles – more than any other Guinean group.

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  

Balla Onivogui was born in 1938 in Macenta, a small town in Guinea's south-east near the border with Liberia. As a child he played the banjo and sometime in the early 1950s he took up the trumpet. His interest in music was formalised at the conservatory in Dakar, but while on a break from his studies he was swept up by Guinea's independence celebrations and, as a trained musician, was asked by the government to contribute to Guinea's cultural regeneration.

On January 15 1959, just a few weeks after independence, the Guinean government created the Syli Orchestre National, an orchestra which contained the best instrumentalists and which was led by “dedicated musicologists who were prepared to research and advance Guinea’s musical cultural heritage”. The orchestra were placed at the forefront of the authenticité program and among its founding members were Balla Onivogui, Pivi Moriba and Keletigui Traoré. The government assigned the orchestra's personnel the crucial task of training young musicians throughout the country in the basics of composition and technique. The Syli National Orchestre taught many of the groups who would go on to form the basis of Guinea's network of regional orchestras, and were thus fundamental in the creation of a West African modern orchestra style.

The government’s commitment which began with the Syli Orchestre National had quickly expanded, and Balla Onivogui was flown to Italy where he purchased instruments for no less than 60 orchestras. The Syli Orchestre National had also expanded, to the extent that the government split the group into smaller formations. For many years to come, however, the orchestra would be reformed for significant events, notably for the First Panafrican Cultural Festival held in Algiers in 1969, where they won the silver medal.

The split resulted in two new groups: Balla was nominated as the chef d'orchestre of one, while Kélétigui Traoré was assigned control of the other. Balla's orchestra took their name from one of Conakry’s best “bar dancing” venues, the Jardin de Guinée, a venue which still exists today. As the Orchestre du Jardin de Guinée they held a residency for 20 years, and it was here they honed their skills and competed with Keletigui's orchestra, their local rivals at the Bar de la Paillote.
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.