Stability or cultural vitality: many nations seem as if they can only have one or the other. The Republic of Guinea, for instance, has endured quite a turbulent history, yet its musicians have also enjoyed roles as "pioneers in the creation of African popular music styles and as the voice of a new Africa." That's the view of the University of Melbourne's Graeme Counsel, who over the past decade has made a series of trips to the Guinean capital of Conakry on a mission to preserve the great variety of music, part of the tradition now broadly labeled "Afropop," recorded during the decades of state-sponsored cultural abundance after the country gained independence from France in 1958.
"Under the leadership of music lover President Ahmed Sékou Touré," writes Hyperallergic's Allison Meier, "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." The effort had its own record label called Syliphone, which recorded and distributed this new Guinean music until the mid-1980s, and the powerful radio signal of Radiodiffusion Télévision Guinée (RTG) turned listeners on to it well beyond the new country's borders.
Counsel, already a collector of Syliphone records, discovered during his PhD research in 2001 that the Guinean government still held a collection of that era's music (though "a large part of the archive had been destroyed in 1985 when the RTG was bombed by Guinean artillery during an unsuccessful coup"). Applying for and receiving, ultimately, three rounds of funding from the British Library's Endangered Archives Programme, he set about digitizing and cataloging the unexpectedly numerous and perhaps expectedly disorganized and poorly maintained reels of magnetic tape he found, working through bureaucratic hassles, coups d'état, and even a massacre.
"Nothing would deter me," writes Counsel in a series of essays (part one, part two, part three) on the project, "not the authorities' indifference towards the sound archive, not the recalcitrance of their attitudes, nor the tragedies of everyday life in Guinea. Nothing." The fruits of his labors have now become available at the British Library's online Syliphone archive, which boasts over 8,000 Guinean Afropop tracks recorded over 26 years. Meier names among the "legendary" music it makes available "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." Those musicians' names may not ring a bell for you now, but a little time with the archive will guarantee a long-term inability to get their songs out of your head.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.