When French colonial forces pulled out of Guinea following its declaration of independence in 1958, they notoriously even took the lightbulbs. Rebuilding was the first focus of the West African nation, and that included the strengthening of its cultural identity. Under the leadership of music lover President Ahmed Sékou Touré, the government was soon sending out guitars, saxophones, and brass instruments to 35 state-funded prefecture orchestras as part of a new authenticité policy. This directive encouraged a cultural revival that mixed traditional sounds with contemporary music, particularly Cuban and Latin rhythms. From 1958 to 1984, the state-supported Syliphone label dispersed this unique fusion on vinyl, and Radiodiffusion Télévision Guinée (RTG), with one of the strongest radio signals in West Africa, further spread authenticité style throughout the continent.
The British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) is streaming nearly 8,000 Syliphone tracks at British Library Sounds. It’s the first online sound initiative from EAP. The extensive Syliphone archive was in danger of disappearing due to neglect, and censorship under later governments.
“The government’s own archive of this collection had been destroyed in the counter-coup of 1985, when artillery bombed the national broadcaster and home of the offices of the RTG,” Dr. Graeme Counsel, who led the archiving project, writes in an EAP blog post. He adds that authenticité was strongly woven into Guinea’s soundscape as “all Western music was banned from Guinea’s radio network, and to fill the gap the government broadcast its own recordings.” Additionally, all private, colonial-influenced orchestras were disbanded.
Counsel describes the rise of Syliphone and its core state-funded orchestras:
The government supplied all of the groups with musical instruments, which, in the vein of the Cuban/Jazz style popular at the time, included electric guitars, saxophones and trumpets. The government hand-picked musicians who formed core “national” orchestras, and they were tasked with training the young musicians of the 35 “regional” groups. Through authenticité a new form of African music was being created, one which presented traditional Guinean music in a modern style.
The label folded with President Touré’s death in 1984. (Along with music, he was also aggressive in banning opposition parties and imprisoning rivals, so his reign was long.) Among aficionados of 1960s and 70s Afropop, some Syliphone music is legendary, like the loose rhythms of the Bembeya Jazz National, the horn-heavy melodies of the Super Boiro Band, the Latin-influenced beats of Orchestre de la Paillote, and the all-women Cuban-infused les Amazones de Guinée.
There’s unfortunately no way to stream or embed the EAP music, and you have to search for individual tracks by artist and language (not just French, but regional languages like Djakanké, Baga, and Lokko). Since much of the music was long available only on magnetic tape or vinyl, and not many of the artists recorded outside Guinea, the new accessibility with the digital archive is huge for West African music history. You can get a taste for the jazz-meets-Guinea-folk Syliphone sound in this video from when Counsel ended the project’s stage at the RTG in 2013, and Guinea’s Ministry of Culture hosted a concert featuring les Amazones de Guinée:
The complete Syliphone record label recordings from Guinea are available for listening at British Library Sounds.