Endangered Archives

EAP327: Guinea's Syliphone archives

Dr Graeme Counsel, University of Melbourne GSA
2009 award - Major project
£22,322 for 6 months

Archival partner: Bibliothèque Nationale de Guinée

Project Overview

This project will digitise Syliphone studio recordings from their current reel-to-reel format and archive these recordings. Syliphone recordings were the primary means by which the Guinean government communicated its cultural policy of authenticité, a programme whereby artists were encouraged to create new musical works based on local traditional forms. The reels of music contain a large quantity of unreleased material, and would thus reveal the true scope of the authenticité programme.

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 reinvigorate 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 program saw the creation of a vast network of state-funded regional arts troupes, which represented the nation's towns, districts and regions. Over 50 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, releasing some 728 songs which 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.

The earlier project EAP187 successfully restored the Syliphone catalogue of vinyl recordings, which are now housed in Guinea's national library. The Guinean government recognised this project through the awarding of the national's highest civilian honour, the Medaille de Palme Académique en Or, and a Diplôme d'Honneur through the Ministère de la Culture, des Arts, et Loisirs, to the Principal Investigator. The archive was officially launched in Guinea's National Museum complex in September 2008 as part of Guinea's 50th year of independence celebrations.

Guinea's Voix de la Révolution studio recorded the bulk of Guinean music in the era of the 1st Republic (1958-1984). Many of the original studio recordings date to the early 1960s and exist only on reel-to-reel format. These tapes are deteriorating rapidly but Guinea's sound archives have neither the resources nor the hardware for transferring the music to digital format. During previous research in 2008 over 750 reel-to-reels were discovered - 129 reels were digitised and the remainder will be digitised during this project.

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. 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. A complete archive of Syliphone recordings would serve as a showcase for the nation's rich cultural heritage.

Project Outcome

Listen online to 7,781 recordings or search the catalogue. Those recordings that are not available online due to copyright restrictions can be listened to in the British Library reading rooms.

The project started off very well, with unfettered access to the Radiodiffusion Télévision Guinée (RTG) archives and direct Ministerial approval for the project. Many audio reels were digitised.

On 28 September 2009 however, the Guinean army opened fire on a peaceful demonstration held at a football stadium in Conakry, the capital. Many people were killed and injured. The project then moved out of Conakry to archive material held at the rural RTG stations in Guinea. Several weeks later on arrival back in Conakry the situation had deteriorated and the city was extremely tense, with most foreigners having left the country, Ministers were resigning in protests against the government, embassies were closed, gunfire occurred at night, and official advice from the Australian, UK, and USA governments was to leave Guinea as soon as possible. In consultation with EAP staff, the decision had to be made to terminate the project and the PI to leave the country immediately.

Despite these extremely difficult circumstances the project achieved the digitisation of a vast catalogue of recordings, some 2,236 songs from 335 audio reels. It is regrettable that the project was unable to be fully completed especially as reels of music had just been discovered in Conakry which contained very important and rare material. It is hoped that the project can be resumed at a later date.

The archive is housed at the archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale de Guinée, with a copy given to the Radiodiffusion Télévision Guinée archives and the British Library.

Blogs:

Read online the open access article: Music for a revolution: the sound archives of Radio Télévision Guinée, published in the EAP Anniversary publication From Dust to Digital. The article can also be downloaded as a PDF (48000KB).

'A Guide to the Syliphone Archive' (PDF document 354KB) has been created by project holder Graeme Counsel which gives a history of the archive alongside some recommended listenings.

The digitisation of the Syliphone archive was funded through three EAP grants: EAP187; EAP327; EAP608