Sory Kandia Kouyaté - La Voix de la Révolution
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Sory Kandia Kouyaté|
La Voix de la Révolution
Sterns Music (STCD3060-61)

Was Sory Kandia Kouyaté the Bob Marley of Guinea?

There certainly are some striking parallels between the lives and careers of the African singer and the reggae star. Both men were regarded in their home countries as more than popular musicians; to their admirers, they were inspiring figures who articulated a collective cultural consciousness that transcended, or at least aimed to transcend, societal and political divisions. In 1975, Kouyaté, in the midst of a performance, pressed two warring African presidents to reconcile for the good of the continent. The charismatic Kouyaté could not be refused, and the two enemies embraced. A year later, Bob Marley, at his “Smile Jamaica” concert, brought Jamaica’s prime minister and his conservative opponent, whose supporters had been killing each other in horrific political wars, on stage to shake hands in a gesture of reconciliation.

Kouyaté and Marley, after becoming renowned and revered in their native lands, toured internationally, connecting with and thrilling diverse audiences who at least initially knew little about Mandinka traditions or Rastafarianism. And both men died young, Kouyaté at 44, Marley at 36.

Marley of course was much better known to pop audiences than Kouyaté; his music had its “exotic” trappings but he wrote hook-y, rock and R&B-influenced songs with English lyrics. During the late Sixties and early Seventies, when Kouyaté enjoyed superstar status in Africa, western audiences were just beginning to appreciate the continent’s music. Had he lived, he very likely would have become an African “world music” star like his compatriots, vocalist Mory Kante and the band Bembeya Jazz, or Nigeria’s King Sunny Ade. Kouyaté was, after all, an extraordinary artist, as evidenced by La Voix de la Révolution, a double CD collection from Sterns Africa comprising tracks originally issued in Guinea on the Syliphone label.

On one disk Kouyaté accompanies himself on ngoni and guitar, with additional support from the Trio de Musique Traditionelle Africaine; on the other, he is backed by two of Guinea’s leading bands from the 1970s, the Ensemble National Djoliba and Keletegui et ses Tambourinis. But whether in a traditional or contemporary setting, Kouyaté is simply amazing, his soaring tenor an instrument of startling power and passionate conviction. According to the CD notes by Justin Morel Junior, on one occasion, when his microphone failed during a concert in Guinea, Kouyaté continued to sing without it, his unamplified voice filling the venue and amazing the crowd. I can believe it – the man could belt!

The title of the Sterns release refers to Kouyaté’s close association with Guinea’s post-independence president, Sékou Touré, and his ruling party, the Parti Démocratique de Guinée. The singer not only embraced the Touré government; he became its musical spokesman, even representing Guinea at the United Nations. (Here’s where the comparison to Marley doesn’t hold: the Jamaican, though often regarded as a supporter of PM Michael Manley’s left-ish administration, never became its public advocate.) Not a few of the tracks on La Voix de la Révolution, “P.D.G.-O.E.R.S,” for example, are praise songs for Touré and his party.

Kouyaté’s questionable politics aside – Touré’s regime became increasingly dictatorial and repressive in the late Sixties – he was a brilliant exponent of his nation’s musical culture, whether composing and orchestrating popular songs as director of the Ensemble Instrumental et Choral de la Voix de la Révolution or performing at international music festivals, including a show in Austria where he sang a duet with Paul Robeson. Songs like “Conakry,” “N’na,” “Tinkisso,” and “Mikossaya” (all here on La Voix de la Révolution) have become classics of Guinean music, and deservedly so – their power and beauty transcend time and place and certainly politics.

Proof that great music, Kouyaté’s included, can’t be defined by the circumstances of its creation came in 1997, when the French-Guinean film, Dakan, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. One can only wonder what Sory Kandia Kouyaté, a devout Muslim (and polygamist), would have thought about his music being used on the soundtrack of the first West African movie about homosexuality, a story of two young African men in love. - George de Stefano

Hear samples of all the tracks on the CD.

CD available from cdRoots

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CD available from cdRoots

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