Keletigui et ses Tambourinis - The Syliphone Years
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Keletigui et ses Tambourinis
The Syliphone Years
Stern's (

One of the oldest critical clichés is that art inspired by politics, or art made to express a political point of view, is agit-prop or just propaganda, that is, bad art. And supposedly the worst is art made under the aegis of a political movement or a government.

In post-colonial Africa, governments attempted to revitalize (and de-colonize) culture by using it to foster a new sense of nationhood and national identity. In Guinea during the 1960s and 70s, President Sekou Touré instituted a cultural policy he called authenticité. Touré's government funded the creation of traditional music ensembles and modern orchestras, as well as choirs and theatre groups. Musicians and other artists were instructed to incorporate indigenous culture in their work, and many found inspiration in the new nation's traditional styles.

No doubt some would regard such a policy as the enemy of art. But authenticité's effect was exactly the opposite: it inspired the creation of some great music, and not only in Guinea but elsewhere on the continent. In the homeland of authenticité, Keletigui Traoré and his orchestra were at the forefront of this cultural revolution. Traoré, who died in 2008 at 74, began his career in 1951, when Guinea was still a French colony. His first instrument was the banjo, but in his Orchestra de la Paillote -- named for the Conakry club that was its home base -- he played organ, saxophone, and flute, and sang. In 1967, he changed the band's name to Keletigui et ses Tambourinis. The orchestra juxtaposed foreign and indigenous instruments - electric organ and balafon - and repertory -- traditional Guinean songs and Afro-Cuban styles, as well as jazz.

"Cigarettes allumettes"
Though the Cuban and jazz influences might seem to contradict the principles of authenticité, they actually were considered consistent with them, since mainly people of African descent created both idioms. The pan-Africanism also extended to another Francophone country with a majority black population: Keletigui's "Cigarettes allumettes," from 1969, is sung in Haitian Creole.

Toure's cultural policy certainly was linked to nationalism. The prez himself made statements like, "If one can't play the music of one's own country then one should stop playing altogether." Guinean bands often promoted his government and its initiatives in their music. In "Fruitaguinée," Keletigui and the Tambourinis touted the products of the eponymous national fruit company. The band's "Djoutè wassa" supported Touré in his struggles against the foes that sought to undermine his government while "JRDA" celebrated the youth wing of Touré's political party, the Parti Démocratique de Guinée.

But political partisanship notwithstanding, the enduring value of authenticité lies in its development and promotion of modern, cosmopolitan Guinean music that, while rooted in local tradition, hardly eschewed foreign influences, not only from the Caribbean and America but also Europe. The difference was that with authenticité, which bespoke a new self-confidence in a formerly colonized nation, Guinean musicians added foreign ingredients to an African base rather than slavishly imitate European or American models because they purportedly were superior to homegrown musical culture.

The newly issued, two CD set from Stern's demonstrates just how brilliantly Keletigui and his orchestra blended the indigenous and the international, from their first recordings to their final sessions in 1976. The compilation - a must-have for fans of modern African music -- includes among its 32 selections many tracks previously unavailable on CD. Keletigui et ses Tambourinis: The Syliphone Years, like Sterns' previous Guinean collections, has been beautifully packaged, with a 42-page booklet featuring wonderful color photos from the band's heyday and Graeme Counsel's informative notes.

"La Bicycletta"
The first CD covers the three-year period, 1968 to 1970, when the band began recording; the second comprises tracks recorded from 1970-1976, their peak years. There's a pronounced sabor Cubano in the music they made in both eras, with covers of Orquesta Aragon's "Guajira con tumbao" and Sexteto Habanero's "El Tomatero" and "La Loma de Belen," "La Bicycletta," "Tambourinis Cocktail," an original inspired by the Cuban trumpeter Felix Chappotin, and the delightful "Kiss My Nose" (originally released under the typographically incorrect and more sinister title, "Kiss My Noose"). The band obviously listened closely to those Cuban records - and maybe even caught some of the artists live, since Cuban bands did perform in post-Independence Africa. The Tambourinis have the classic Cuban sound down pat -- the Aragon-style suave unison vocals and fluttery flute, the clave-centered polyrhythms, the buoyant but relaxed swing that is the antithesis of today's hard-edged timba.

Keletigui et ses Tambourinis earned their place as Guinea's leading orchestra mainly because of outstanding soloists. (The vocals - mostly by Manfila Kanté, Papa Kouyaté and Keletigui - are good but not really the band's strong suit.) The ensemble boasted the lead guitarist Linke Condé (the instrumental "Kadia Blues" is a showcase for his soulful playing) and his brother Sekou on rhythm. The expansive and shifting lineup also included saxophonists Bigné Doumbia and Momo "Wandel" Soumah, as well as Keletigui on tenor, lead trumpeter Kerfala Camara, and Lansana Diabaté, whose balafon became prominent in the band's sound during the 1970s.

Authenticité was abandoned as government policy during the economic crisis of the early 1980s, followed by the death of Sekou Touré and the subsequent overthrow of his party's government in a military coup. Many of the orchestras spawned by Touré's policy disbanded, but not Keletigui's, which continues to perform, albeit without their leader.

The remarkable, and in its time, quite radical music Keletigui Traoré made with his orchestra validated authenticité and inspired much African popular music, Guinean and other, that followed. Keletigui et ses Tambourinis: The Syliphone Years is an invaluable document of a revolution in sound that still reverberates. - George De Stefano

CD available from cdRoots

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cd cover

"La Bicycletta"


CD available from cdRoots

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