when and where: music of guinea's "authenticité" movement

“regard sur le passé"

(1/4” tape reels in the radio télévision guinée sound archive. photo by graeme counsel)

welcome to issue #7 of “tusk is better than rumours,” a newsletter featuring primers and album rankings of experimental and ‘outsider’ musicians. artist primers are published every second and fourth monday, and on the first and third mondays i publish a variety of articles ranging from label and genre primers to interviews to guest writers.

this week is the first of a series that i’m calling “when and where,” which will appear semi-frequently and provide a guide to the music of specific times and places. future topics might include the early tokyo noise scene, or 1970s ethiopian jazz, or the “dunedin sound” of new zealand. this issue right here focuses on music that grew from the “authenticité” era in the west african country of guinea, which is a truly wild story.

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[i’ve created a wonderful .mp3 album of guinean music from this period, which you can download here. do it quick because the link will be dead in one week! *NOTE: due to increased attention to this article, i’ve renewed the link an extra week, to 3/17/20. Get it!* it makes great background music for this read, it improves mood, it stabilizes waning relationships.]

on the 28th of september 1958, guineans were given a choice by french president charles de gaulle: they could have more autonomy under france’s new fifth republic or immediate and complete independence. although france’s other colonies voted for autonomy within the so-called “french community,” guineans overwhelmingly voted for independence, putting an end to… let me check wikipedia right quick… 60 years of colonial rule. this was done because of the strength of the democratic party of guinea (pdg) led by ahmed sékou touré, who became guinea’s first president.

the french were pissed at this result and on their way out they trashed the place, taking with them important infrastructure blueprints, burning medicine, stealing valuables, and destroying many important things including broadcast and recording studios. touré recognized that cultural expression, and especially music, would be crucial for creating solidarity around a cohesive national identity, so he poured money into a state of the art recording studio and radio station. he also hired the best musicians in guinea to play in the “syli orchestre national.” this band would travel throughout the new nation’s 30+ regions, training smaller orchestras and bands who were given new instruments specially purchased by the government from italy.

one caveat though, which was that touré also banned all european music and created what is called “authenticité,” a cultural program that required musicians, writers, and artists to “look at the past” when creating their new works. graeme counsel, an ethnomusicologist and historian (and real hero, actually, which we’ll get to in a moment) defines this policy like so in his article “music for a revolution”:

Authenticité was entirely Afrocentric, and it called for “a self-awareness of ancestral values.” In Guinea this was achieved under the catchcry of “regard sur le passé [look at the past],” a phrase that gained wide currency in the region following the release of a Syliphone LP recording of the same title [by Bembeya Jazz National]. Under authenticité, Guinea’s musicians were encouraged to research the musical folklore of their regions and incorporate aspects such as the melodies, lyrics and themes into their new compositions. In effect, they were being asked to “look at the past” for their artistic inspiration, and thus re-connect Guinean society to its cultural and political history. Through this practice, the Guinean nation could advance because, as Touré declared, “each time we adopt a solution authentically African in its nature and its design, we will solve our problems easily.” (p. 552-553)

so throughout the 1960s you’ve got a massive project to create a national music, with orchestras, ensembles, dance troupes, and solo artists performing under the pressure of a contradictory remit to express themselves creatively while under strict government censorship. only songs that praised president touré, socialism, or the pdg party were recorded or broadcast. some musicians thrived under these conditions, becoming international stars; some suffered the loss of their job; others, including the guitarist and singer fodé conté, chose exile.

in 1968 touré introduced what he called the “cultural revolution,” under which all media was controlled by the state. all media companies were called “syli,” after the susu word for elephant, which was the pdg’s symbol: syli-cinema, syli-photo, syliart, and most importantly for our purposes, syliphone. syliphone produced albums by guinean musicians, carefully recorded and meticulously packaged. syliphone albums represented the peak of the success of cultural authenticité—the best of what a newly independent nation can produce once it throws off the shackles of colonialism. other west african nations, including mali, burkina faso, zaire, and chad adopted authenticité or similar programs modeled after guinea in large part because of the cultural work that these albums accomplished as they were distributed throughout the continent.

(syliphone logo, featuring the namesake elephant symbol of the pdg)

unfortunately, the utopian vision of life in guinea as presented on syliphone recordings was a lie. counsel writes that

The reality of life in Guinea during the First Republic of Touré (1958- 1984) was, however, far removed from that depicted on the Syliphone recordings. A weakening economy had fed discontent with the PDG and its leadership as early as 1960... 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. Others simply disappeared. These efforts to eliminate opponents of the regime were aided by informants and loyalists who comprised some 26,000 party cells that were located in Guinea’s villages, towns and cities. Although Touré had entered the presidency with a popular mandate, Guineans were now unable to dislodge their leader. (p. 562-563)

imagine the musicians living under such conditions, not only forbidden from protesting but made to quite literally sing touré’s praises. still, the music that resulted from the era is remarkable. no matter what the musicians may have thought about the political conditions that constrained their expression, even those songs self-evidently in support of pdg and touré are moving. i’m thinking about sory lariya bah’s unsettlingly forceful vocals on “hommage au p.d.g.” and the busy, urgent percussion on folklore de forecariah’s “hommage a ahmed séku touré.” despite a constricted range of lyrical content, their musicality is vital.

during touré’s presidency, from 1958 to 1984, guinea was at the forefront of a musical revolution in west africa. no doubt touré’s leadership was brutal and autocratic, but before 1958 guinean musicians played mainly french music as colonial subjects; authenticité, while restricting lyrical content, pushed them to experiment with genres from africa and the african diaspora to create music that was strikingly inventive. guinea also hosted the largest archive of west african music in its radio télévision guinéenne studio (rtg). then, a pair of events put the entire project at risk. first, touré died on march 26, 1984 and was replaced by military colonel lansana conté in a peaceful coup. conté was markedly antagonistic to touré’s politics and forbid the majority of music recorded under his regime to be distributed or broadcast until his death in 2008. secondly, the rtg building was bombed during an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1985. most of the syliphone archive of vinyl albums was destroyed, and it was thought that all but about 50 reels of unreleased music was destroyed as well.

in 2008, right before conté took ill, graeme counsel, an australian ethnomusicologist who had done phd research at the rtg, arrived with money from the british library’s endangered archives program to track down and digitize the syliphone vinyl and to repair and digitize the 50 reels that survived there. you’ll notice that above i said “it was thought” that 50 reels survived. in actuality, over 1,200 reels of music were hidden away in the rtg archives. this was the archive that the rtg used for its radio broadcasts—they would play direct from the 1/4” tape to air. until conté’s death, it was forbidden to access these archives, as the music contained therein—which also represented the country’s entire musical identity post-independence—was considered dangerous propaganda. so for almost a quarter of a century, these reels sat, completely unavailable elsewhere, suffering from mold in the wet season and gathering dust in the dry season.

after realizing the actual extent of the archive, counsel expanded his project into 2009, when a coup d’etat installed the military regime of moussa "dadis" camara and made it dangerous to stay. he left until 2012, when he returned and stayed into 2013 to complete the project. because of counsel’s persistence in the face of quite literally life-threatening conditions, 7,767 guinean songs from 1960 to 2000 have been digitally preserved and made publicly available through the british library. because of his efforts, counsel was given the gold medal of the palme académique en or, guinea’s highest academic honor.

(graeme counsel searching through the rtg archives. photo from radio africa)

the rtg archive hosted by the british library is the only complete digital collection of west african music from this era. but how do you search through 7,767 songs? let me tell you, i don’t know. one strategy is to begin with those guinean performers who already have an international profile. perhaps the most famous guinean band is bembeya jazz national, whose syliphone album “regard sur le passé” gave the authenticité program its catchphrase. the singer miriam makeba may be a familiar place to start for american ears, as she gained prominence during the civil rights era, even signing to rca records, until she married black panther leader stokely carmichael had to move with him back to guinea after being targeted by the u.s. government. thanks to reissues from sterns africa, a couple of bands, balla et ses balladins and keletigui et ses tambourinis, have received renewed attention.

OR you can download my bitchin’ .mp3 album. i used my big brain and a time machine to listen to all 7,767 songs and pick out only the best. fode conté’s “afriki khoroya” is a big raucous joyous mess. quintette guineenne’s “massane cisse” features guitars that shred for its entirety, except for a percussion solo that takes over shredding duties temporarily. 22 band’s “mousso la tintani” will get stuck in your head immediately, which means you now have to learn to speak maninkakan. there are a couple of more downtempo tracks as well, like the beautiful tune “mamadou boutigui” by the obscure kora player keba sissoko and the heartwrenching “malisadio” performed by the great singer sory kandia kouyaté backed by the ensemble national djoliba. i also included a few songs from the conté era (post-1984), including amara camara’s guitar tune “mariage force” and the ramshackle “allanuwaneh” by le benda melodie. dive in and explore this, folks, because lemme tell you i am listening to it right now and having a great time.

i’m going to leave you with this video of les amazones de guinée performing at the celebration of the completion of graeme counsel’s rtg archive project, which is what got me into guinean music to begin with. see you next week, if you survive this: