Continuing their remarkable service to African music, Sterns have released another ‘power pack’ of legendary recordings, this time from the much-loved Guinean singer Sory Kandia Kouyaté.
Born in 1933 or 1937 – accounts vary, but the liner notes to this double CD collection quote the former date – Kouyaté was the scion of a well-known family of musicians and storytellers that trace their heritage back to Balla Fasséké Kouyaté, the first great jeli (artist) of the Manding kingdom.
Yet this music reverberates with a modernity that effortlessly spans the decades. On one of the CDs we have 14 tracks that Kouyaté recorded with the Ensemble National ‘Djoliba’ and Keletigui et ses Tambourinis, and on the other nine tracks with the Trio de Musique Traditionelle Africaine.
It is music that dates from a time when, under the patronage of Guinea’s first independent head of state, Ahmed Sékou Touré, national ensembles were created to cement national identity and pride.
Undeniably, Touré was later to become a brutal, repressive autocrat, but during the early heady days of independence he followed policies that can only be described as inspired. He had infuriated the old colonial power, France, by refusing to join the CFA monetary zone at independence.
France, for its part, reacted with a petty (and not so petty) vindictiveness towards Touré’s administration, purposely doing its utmost to sabotage the fledgling economy of this small West African nation that had little in the way of an economy in the first place.
In the face of this hostility, Touré would not concede one centimetre. Instead he determined that he needed to unify the country under his leadership and one of his policies was to promote the establishment of regional and national musical ensembles, big bands whose members were, to all intents and purposes, salaried civil servants.
Timeless traditional melodies
Even the instruments they played were supplied by the state, and their repertoires were drawn from timeless, traditional Manding melodies, but reinterpreted for modern instrumentation such as amplified guitars and brass instruments. Perhaps the most famous of these ensembles was Les Ballets Africains founded by the Guinean intellectual Keita Fodéba, which went on to earn great international acclaim.
Even before independence, Kouyaté was forming and playing with traditional ensembles. His friends recommended him to Fodéba and he joined the ensemble for a time before embarking on an ambitious, triumphant international tour in 1956 that took him to France and most of Europe (West and East) as well as the USSR, US and China.
When he finally returned to Africa he again toured, covering much of West Africa. Then independence came, and in a move that might be considered ‘national service’, he immediately rejoined Les Ballets Africains, which served the new nation as musical ambassadors, touring the US and Europe to huge acclaim.
But these recordings date from a later period, probably the early 1970s (the liner notes do not provide recording dates), a time when Kouyaté was touring Africa extensively, from Côte d’Ivoire to Tanzania, until in 1961 Sekou Touré placed the Ensemble Instrumental et Choral de la Voix de la Révolution under Kouyaté’s leadership. It represented Guinea at various world festivals, and one performance was even credited with reconciling Mali’s and Upper Volta’s (Burkina Faso) two presidents who were at loggerheads with each other.
Tragically, it was after a performance by Ensemble Instrumental et Choral de la Voix de la Révolution and returning by road to Conakry that Kouyaté died, probably of a heart attack. This CD is a testament to this extraordinary musician.