It's difficult to grasp how legendary someone is when they're sitting in front of you eating fried chicken and rice. But Ibrahima Sylla is considered by many to be one of the most influential producers in the history of African music, and the man who single-handedly brought the modern sound of West Africa to a world audience with the release of Salif Keita's seminal album Soro. That was the catalyst for a young producer from Senegal whose main claim to fame was having one of the largest collections of Cuban music in Dakar, Senegal.
Sylla came to music production through a friend from Ivory Coast who wanted to record Cuban songs in an authentic style. "I got into making suggestions about how to go about it, and how to arrange them," he says. His recording break came with Orchestra Baobab in 1979 at the legendary Golden Baobab studio in Dakar, now part of Xippi studios, run by Youssou N'Dour.
His production role has been shaped by his extensive terms of reference. "I travelled all round central Africa with my parents, and when I was in Paris I collected all these Cuban records, along with soul and other styles, and I think I bring this to artists.
"With Baobab in the Seventies, everyone was doing rumba, but I was the man who actually had the huge record collection and was able to point them in the right direction. Salif Keita was looking for something revolutionary, so I suggested putting him in touch with someone from the West who had the same avant-garde approach. That was François Bréant - and basically I let them get on with it."
Sylla was at the Womad festival last week to promote his new album Mandekalou, a collection of songs celebrating the West African tradition of the griot, or oral historian and messenger. He admits he is himself neither griot nor musician, but his Syllart Production logo amounts to a hallmark of quality on many of the best West African albums.
A certain degree of mystery surrounds Ibrahima Sylla. He studied management and law in Paris in the early Seventies, and there are reportsthat he is a hard-nosed businessman as well as a maverick producer who isn't afraid to take risks.
Due to his "noble" family roots, his father disowned him for three years when he thought his son wanted to be a singer. Only when Sylla said it was music production, and so a good business venture, did his father relent.
He's modest about his personal contribution to music, but Sylla is something of a fixer or, as he puts it, "an impossible rendezvous man". There are a lot of big names on his new album, and their experience has taught them to be mistrusting and to guard their material. "They only did it because they knew of me and my reputation for pulling off the impossible," Sylla says. One such deed was reuniting the singer Kandia Kouyate with her mentor Bako Dagnon, to whom she hadn't spoken in 14 years.
"Mandekalou is a very personal project, even if none of the songs are original," Sylla says. "They are all griot standards of the Manding people, but over the years these songs weren't really interpreted well, and people were saying any old rubbish over them. I told the singers I wanted to go back to the original lyrics of these songs and to banish all the crowd-pleasing nonsense that's been going on.
"I looked at this album as more of a historical record than a commercial release. I want young Manding people to hear this album in 30 years' time and to know how these songs should sound." Sylla gathered together the griot equivalent of a supergroup. Along with the singers Kouyate and Dagnon, the artists included Djelimady Tounkara, Kasse Mady Diabate and Sekouba "Bambino" Diabate.
Mandekalou was recorded at Bogolan Studios in Bamako over several weeks, although the entire process took years while Sylla sent researchers out to discover original lyrics. "They went and spoke to people of older generations. For example, 'Touramagan' is about a region of Senegal called Senegambia that was conquered by Touramagan, the general of King Soundiata, who led the migration of the Manding. Plenty of people in Abidjan know the whole story. They may be illiterate, but they have all the history in their heads and they helped us to rebuild the story."
The griot tradition stretches back for generations across West Africa. "When the griots went about their business relaying messages, they didn't just do it in words; they put it into song as well. They are the guardians of the oral tradition. Before there was literacy, they were the librarians."
Mandekalou, released on cassette in West Africa, has been well received in Mali and Guinea - and, satisfyingly, in Ivory Coast, where a civil war rages. Sylla has never been afraid to unite cultures through his music.
'Mandekalou' is out on Monday on Melodie/SyllartReuse content