Ibrahima Sylla
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Ibrahima Sylla

Ibrahima Sylla

Christina Roden remembers one of the most unique characters in contemporary African music.
(Photo courtesy of C. C. Smith)

Ibrahima Sylla, an irreplaceable titan of African music, died on Monday, December 30, 2013 at age 57, following a long illness.

He was often compared to illustrious producers like Ahmet Ertugun, John Hammond and Quincy Jones, although his scope was actually immeasurably vaster. Sylla had the ears of an angel. At one time, it seemed that every major Francophone band passed through his prolific Paris-Dakar production mill.

Sylla was born in Kaolack, Senegal into a wealthy diplomatic family, and spent his formative years in Dakar. His father (a passionate record collector and concert-goer in his own right) and uncle both had multiple wives; in a household of that size, it seemed that someone was always being born, circumcised, married, or buried. Thus, noted Jalis (griots, or hereditary historians/musicians) from throughout the Senegambia frequently performed at the family compound and the young Sylla experienced some of greatest artists of the day.

By the 70s, when he was in Paris studying economics, Sylla had collected thousands of Latin music albums and was licensing material for distribution in Europe and Africa. Later, he moved on to the music he had heard growing up and devoted his efforts to prospecting bands from Mali, Senegal, Congo, Cape Verde, Ivory Coast, and elsewhere on the Continent. In its heyday, his company roster included Congolese mega-stars like Quatre Etoiles, Pepe Kalle, and Tshala Muana, Ivorian reggae sensation Alpha Blondy, Senegalese idols Orchestre Baobab, Youssou N'Dour and Thione Seck, and Malian icons like Oumou Sangare and, most famously, Salif Keita, whose Syllart-produced album Soro was a world-wide best-seller.

Anyone who observed Sylla in the studio, especially when collaborating with his colleague and boon companion, Malian producer/arranger Boncana Maiga, was astounded by his taste and skill, and diverted by his mordant humor and unflappable panache -- nobody ever spent a single dull moment in his presence. If some of his financial idiosyncrasies exasperated record companies - who often found Sylla's definition of exclusivity a trifle elastic - nobody disputed that he had a knack for unearthing the finest and most commercially viable talent.

I first met Sylla in Paris during the mid-80s. He was in his car, which was driven by a member of Quatre Etoiles. He never went anywhere without one of the highly cumbersome mobile phones of that era, so we arranged to meet on a specific street corner. At the appointed time and location, a big black sedan pulled up to the curb, a rear window went down, and I found myself face-to-face with a chunky, very dark-skinned gentleman with remarkably observant, distrustful eyes and a disarmingly sweet smile. He was never much for words and the entire encounter lasted perhaps 3 minutes.

Almost a decade later, while I was employed by Stern's Music US, Sylla arrived in Manhattan with 3 Senegalese salseros in tow. His plan was to settle in at Variety Studios, one of Tito Puente's old stomping grounds, and make the definitive African-Latin crossover album. Upon arrival, Boncana Maiga, who had spent 12 years in Cuba, set about engaging the best session men in town, including several Fania All-Star veterans. As Latin music had evolved from Africans in exile and was re-Africanized more than a century later in Senegal, Congo, and other places, the recording was meant to reconnect a long-broken circle. The group thus created was dubbed Africando. From the very beginning, and over the course of 6 subsequent albums, they were an international sensation, breaking into a number of previously impregnable Latin markets. I once heard “Yaye Boy” blaring from a car in Sacramento, CA.

Everyone involved understood that we were witnessing an epochal project in the making. But the most indelible image that remains with me from those days is of a tribe of people who were around the sessions for one reason of another (Boncana Maiga, CC Smith from “The Beat” magazine, Timothy Marquand from Stern's, and easily half the Africando team) unquestioningly charging across Times Square - against traffic - with Sylla in the lead, his silky, embroidered robes flapping in a humid, smoggy New York evening. Somehow, for me, this remains the most perfect metaphor for the whole Sylla experience. I would not have missed knowing him for the world.

Bon voyage, cher Maestro, et merci beaucoup. - Christina Roden

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