Balla et ses Balladins - "Sara '70" (The Syliphone Years)
Guinea's independence in the fall of 1958 found the country, like so many of its neighbors, not only playing catch-up with a modern world it now felt forced to be part of, but also trying to figure out the place for its own long-standing traditions. For a better understanding of the complexities and the ultimate betrayal of post-independence Guinea and its president, Sekou Toure, NYU Africana Studies Chair Manthia Diawara's book, In Search of Africa, might clarify things a bit. However, for a slice of the country's initial no-longer-French-controlled fruits, one need go no farther than any of the various compilations of 1960's and 70's era Guinean orchestras who recorded for the mighty Syliphone label. Sterns has already given us a sampler, Autheticitie––named after the term for Toure's radical culture policy––plus a double disc of Bembeya Jazz, perhaps the label's strongest band. The Dakar Sound label put a nice compilation of Horoya Band tracks out a few years back, and the Discotheque Guinea series is out on disc as well.
Which all leads us to Balla et ses Balladins. Anyone who's ever copped an earful of any of the above-mentioned bands/releases will be familiar at once with Balla. Because Toure insisted that all 34 regions of Guinea be represented by an orchestra, and that said bands eschew all colonial influences and, instead, dig into the country's own rich musical traditions, the best Syliphone bands used guitar parts to replicate balafon rhythms. The results were a hypnotic, dense and often baffling mix of joy and melancholy. And while this music initially still relied, at least a bit, on Cuban and Congolese strains, it didn't take long for bands such as Balla, Bembeya, Super Boiro, Camera Sofa and others to offer up music that could have come from no place other than Sekou Toure's Guinea.
The four years covered on the first disc of this set, 1968-72, shows the band's transformation from the Orchestre du Jardin de Guinee to Balla et ses Balladins. Early track, "Yo Te Contres Maria," is a direct snag from Cuban Tres player Arsenio Rodriguez (Bembeya refashioned his "No Vuelvo A Moron" into their "Air Guinea"), but by the disc's centerpiece, "Sara '70," this band is in a league of one. The interlocking patterns played by guitarists Sekou Diabate and Kemo Kouyate have time to stretch into dark vamps that cast spells. "Moi Ca Ma Fout," on the other hand, is nearly furious, and this track must have sent dancers into a frenzy live. Disc Two, which moves from '72 to '80, finds the band confidently snaking their way through rivers of melodies, riffs and grooves, punctuated by clipped, minor key horn jabs over which the band's three vocalists soar. That this music is the pride of West Africa overshadows the fact that none of the Syliphone bands became the international stars that acts from the 80s onward did. Nonetheless, its case, unlike Toure's, is easily made.