November 3, 2017
A Syliphone Records Primer

In the comment section under a video for J. Cole's 2011 song “Can't Get Enough,” everyone loves the sample and the beat and no one agrees where its from. People are contemptuously sure its from Central Africa or from Cuba, or maybe Congo, or, the experts allow, perhaps Senegal. Finally someone who knows what they're talking about—or who checked Whosampled.com—pipes up: It's Balla et ses Balladins, one of the most famous bands from Guinea's Syliphone Records.

From around 1967 to until 1983, Syliphone released over 160 records, some 700 songs. Syliphone artists played across the world, from the USSR to the USA and played for dignitaries from all over Africa, where the groups arguably had their greatest impact. The idea of nationalized music spread to nearby Mali and Burkina Faso and as far as Zaire. It demonstrated to the world that post-colonial African culture was possible, real and stunning. It challenged a generation of musicians and, if J. Cole is any indication, still does today. But where did it come from? And where did it go?

In 1958, Guinea voted for independence, the first country to do in French West Africa. The French, not pleased, cut off aide to the young state, economically hobbling Guinea from the very beginning. Sékou Touré became Guinea's first president, and Parti Démocratique du Guinée (PDG) became the ruling party. Their politics were a mix of Marxist-Leninism, Africanist and Islamic principles and Touré was steadfastly determined to decolonize Guinea and create a national identity. One of the conduits of doing so was music.

Touré took dramatic measures. The government banned private orchestras and foreign music from the radio, and then got into the business of creating music to replace it. They founded big Cuban-style dance bands or orchestras of their own, nationally and one for each of Guinea's over 30 regions. The government paid the musicians' wages and provided the instruments, and even sent out members of the national orchestras to help train the regional orchestras. The government built four state of the art recording studios and one of the largest radio transmitters in West Africa, and founded the national record label: Syliphone Records.

The prefix “Syli” comes from the local Susu word for “elephant,” which was the symbol of the PDG. It would come to cover the Guinean government's film company, Syli-Cinema, its photography unit, Syli-Photo, and a regulatory body that oversaw the production of literary works, Syliart. It became shorthand for something Guinean and from the PDG, a sign of a repressive tendency that was growing in the party.

“Guinea’s currency was re-named the syli, and so pervasive was the use of the term 'syli' that Guineans lit their fires with Syli brand matches.” Graeme Counsel explained in his chapter on Syliphone Records in From Dust to Digital Ten Years of the Endangered Archives Programme. “This merging of the Guinean nation with the syli illustrates the totalitarian nature of Touré’s regime.”

The first orchestra was the Syli National Orchestra established in 1959, and it was led by the guitarist Grand Papa Diabaté. He was legendary, adapting the sound of the balfon—the West African ancestor of the xylophone—into a distinctively Guinean guitar style. Cuban music was still huge in Francophone West Africa from Senegal down to Congo but the group would go out to villages and learn what songs they sang, and make arrangements for the orchestra. The style became a sort of Guinean rumba, which would find its full flourishing after 1963 when the Syli orchestra split into two bands, Balla et ses Balladins and Kélétigui et ses Tambourins, and also in the crown jewel of the Guinean big bands, the Bembeya Jazz National. More on them in a moment.

The animating principle behind the bands was that of “authenticité”—authentically African, and more specifically, Guinean, but also a modern nation state. Musicians in the regional orchestras were to present modernized versions of their region's folk music. The slogan was “regard sur le passé” or “look at the past.” Songs originally played on the kora and balafon were arranged for the Cuban-style bands, with brass sections and upwards of four electric guitarists, and rhythm sections that included congas, timbales and a drum kit. Traditional griot songs turned into Latin jams, with rippling, flickering guitar lines that grow into solo wild fires, punctuated by swooping horn breaks.

Touré believed that the Guinean countryside held more “authenticité” than the cities, which may partially explain why Syliphone Records so disproportionally represented one ethnic group, the Mandé, so much more than Guinea's Fulbé majority. Over 70 percent of Syliphone recordings were performed in Maninkakan while those sung in Fulfulde accounted for just 3 percent.

Looming over all of the other '60s big bands is Bembeya Jazz National. They originally were founded in 1961 as a regional orchestra, but after two wins in the national Biennele artistic competition, they relocated to the campital Conakry in 1966 and were crowned “Orchestre Nationale Bembeya Jazz.” Their first vocalist Aboubacar Demba Camara became one of Guinea's first homegrown superstars and their guitarist Sékou “Diamond Fingers” Diabaté (cousin to Grand Papa Diabaté) has been called Africa's greatest guitarist. At the very least he has one of the best names.

Bembeya became a national band, along with Balla et ses Balladins and Kélétigui et ses Tambourins, playing in the capital city “every night except Sunday night...It was extraordinary. Every night until 2:00 in the morning,” as Sékou Diabaté told Afropop's Banning Eyre in 2002. They released a single song that spanned both sides of the record that payed homage to Samory Touré, grandfather of the president Sékou Touré, who led the insurgency against French rule in the late nineteenth century.

The Cuban influence gave way to soul and funk and finally soukous in the '70s. Syliphone releases trace West African music's increasing originality.

HEAR OUR PROGRAM: The Story of Bembeya Jazz National

Unfortunately, at the same time, Sékou Touré became increasingly authoritarian.

“Opposition to the president’s authority was not tolerated, with opponents of the government risking arrest, imprisonment, torture, or a death sentence in the notorious Camp Boiro prison,” wrote Counsel.

The country's economy got worse, and more and more Guineans moved abroad. In the early 1970s, the Portuguese backed an attempt by Guinean dissidents to invade the capital, causing Touré to consolidate power further. He was reelected without opposition until dying suddenly from a heart attack in 1984. A week later, a military coup swept the PDG from power.

Following in a tradition of praising the patron, songs from the Syliphone years lauded Touré and his government. Under General Lansana Conté, who ruled the country until 2008, those songs could no longer be played on the radio. The new government didn't believe in the extravagance of national orchestras and disbanded them.

But no music this good could stay hidden. Though the whole archive of Syliphone records, the records and some 7,000 additional songs on tape, languished in poorly maintained storage for decades, archivists have been working to digitize this beautiful music. All of it is available, albeit a little inconveniently, via the British Museum's website, and compilations of Syliphone Records seem to keep coming out. Just typing “the Syliphone years” into Spotify yields days of great music. The Touré years have been challenging for Guinea to overcome, but Syliphone remains evidence that the end of a repressive regime opens the door for something magical.