Endangered Archives

EAP187: Syliphone - an early African recording label

Dr Graeme Counsel, African Studies Association of Australasia and the Pacific
2008 award - Major project
£8,821 for 4 months

Archival partner: Bibliothèque Nationale de Guinée

Project Overview

This project aims to create an archive of sound recordings released on the Syliphone label, and also to copy unreleased Syliphone studio recordings from their current reel-to-reel format to compact disc and to archive these recordings.

In 1958 Guinea gained independence and the newly elected government sought ways to revitalise the nation after a long period of colonial rule. In order to instil a sense of nationhood and to revitalise the indigenous arts the government introduced the concept of authenticité, a cultural policy whereby artists were encouraged to look at the past for inspiration and to incorporate themes and styles from local traditions into their new works. The authenticité programme saw the creation of a vast network of state-funded regional arts troupes, which represented the nation's towns, districts and regions. Over 40 regional and national orchestras formed a major part of these troupes, and together with groups such as Les Ballets Africains they toured the world and travelled extensively within Africa. The concept of authenticité was thus spread to other African nations, such as Mali, Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, and Zaïre, many of whom adopted authenticité as their official cultural policy.

In Guinea, authenticité provided the basis for the development of new styles of popular African music in the 1960s. A key method of the music's distribution was via Guinea's Syliphone recording label. A state-funded enterprise, Syliphone was the first state-funded African recording label of the postcolonial era, and the company released 82 long play records and 75 singles. This catalogue of over 700 songs featured Guinea's modern orchestras, folkloric troupes, and solo artists. Production of Syliphone recordings continued until 1984, with the death of President Sékou Touré. In 1985 an attempted coup in Conakry saw the building which housed the Syliphone catalogue destroyed. This was the only complete collection in the country.

This project will assemble and digitise the existing collections of Syliphone vinyl discs. In addition to this catalogue there exist reel-to-reel recordings of studio-quality unreleased material dating from the 1960s, with each reel containing approximately 75 minutes of music, which will also be digitised. It is planned to locate all of the material at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Conakry and the project has the support of the library's director, Dr. Baba Cheick Sylla.

The reel-to-reel recordings have a limited lifespan and transferring them to digital form must occur soon. If the recordings were to perish then an invaluable resource, one that has been neither properly catalogued nor publicly released, would be lost. Similarly, the vinyl stock also has a limited lifespan. If neither were archived, the consequences would be that Guinea's recording label, West Africa's first, would remain enigmatic, and an important chapter in the development of African music would be lost.

This project has great significance for African researchers. In an era of globalisation, the authenticité movement via the Syliphone catalogue represented a significant chapter in African history, when a new nation asserted its voice and placed the indigenous arts at the forefront of its cultural identity. In 2008 Guinea celebrates its 50th year of independence. This project will bring to light the true scope of the authenticité policy, a cultural policy which captured Africa's imagination and led to an extraordinary era of creativity in Guinea and in Africa. The archive of Syliphone recordings will serve as a showcase for the nation's rich cultural heritage.

Project Outcome

The aim of this project was two-fold. Firstly, to create a complete digital archive of Syliphone recordings and secondly, to digitise the audio reel-to-reel recordings at the archives of Radiodiffusion Télévision Guinée (RTG).

More than 125 reel-to-reels at the RTG were digitised although it was apparent there were more than 600 reels which had not been catalogued and which required digitisation. There was insufficient time to digitise all of the recordings as there were far more than envisaged, so those which were most in need of archiving were prioritised. It was also discovered there were more reel-to-reel recordings at the RTG offices in rural Guinea, namely in Labé and Kankan, with further reels probably in existence at the offices in Kindia and N'zérékoré.

The Syliphone archive was created and it was very well received by the Guinean government and people. The archive was officially launched at Guinea's national museum, and several government ministers, the British ambassador, and other dignitaries were in attendance. The launch received broad coverage on Guinean television, radio and print media. In recognition of Dr Counsel's work he was awarded Guinea's highest civilian honour, the médaille de Palme Académique en Or, plus a Diplôme d'Honneur.

The Syliphone archive, complete with covers both recto and verso, is housed at the Bibliothèque Nationale de Guinée with a copy also given to the RTG. The reel-to-reel recordings were digitised and given to the RTG. Both collections are available for research purposes upon request to the appropriate authorities at each institution and are also available at the British Library.