No one understands West African music better than Ibrahima Sylla. He's been responsible for producing albums by such luminaries as Orchestra Baobab, Ismael Lo, Youssou N'Dour, Africando (his pet Afro-Latino project) and the Mandekalou albums, which trace the music of the ancient Mande griots. Chances are that if you have a yen for African music, you will own a few albums released on Syllart Productions, a label Sylla started in 1981.
This year has seen the release of four CDs under the banner African Pearls, a dip into the history of Congolese rumba, Malian, Guinean and Senegalese music respectively.
For the most part, this is rough hewn music. The most accessible is Congo: Rumba on the River. Featuring the likes of OK Jazz, Bantous de la Capitale, African Jazz and African Fiesta, it charts a scene that stormed Central and West Africa either side of the Second World War. A mix of Latin and Afro-Cuban rhythms, it's the acceptable face of fusion for many world music aficionados, although hardly authentic. "Congo has always been the leader for African music," says Sylla. "Artists such as Grand Kalle, Franco and OK Jazz, and Tabu Ley Rochereau were the pioneers of modern African music and cannot be avoided when you do a Congolese compilation."
He chose the late Fifties to late Sixties for Congolese rumba because "it was the early days of Africa's independence, many new bands were creating music that was bubbling up everywhere, and so it was certainly the best time for music".
There is one artist he cites above all others: "Grand Kalle was a great pioneer. Through his orchestra he propelled many Congolese artists on to the international stage, such as Tabu Ley, Dr Nico, Boyibanda, Deschaud and Manu Dibango."
The contractual rights were negotiated with either the family of the late musicians, the original producers, and even state departments - in the case of Mali and Guinea. Sylla was also in touch with active artists, such as Tabu Ley (Congo), Bembeya Jazz (Guinea) and Laba Sosseh (Senegal). "Most of the time I chose the songs and sequenced all the compilations," says Sylla. "I spent almost two years researching, sometimes having to remaster the songs that I found."
Guinée: Cultural Revolution touches down in the Eighties courtesy of Ensemble Instrumental de Guinée, African Virtuoses, Quintete Sextete, gravelly throated Momo Wandel, and Keletigui et ses Tambourins. In the notes to the Spanish guitar-inspired track "Kankan Diarabi" by African Virtuoses, it states that "Europe tends to think of 'authentic' African music as limited to drums... While tom-toms have their own poetic language and deliver a rich, nuanced message, African Virtuoses shows that's not all." Sylla explains: "What I love most about Guinean music is the genius of the musicians. Also, it was thanks to a great man called Keita Fodeba - to me he will always remain the best producer. At the end of the 1940s he created les Ballets Africains that explored all sides of African dances, rhythms and music. Many people copied him." He believes that the Sixties and Seventies were the best for Guinean music due to Sékou Touré, the first Guinean president. "He gave splendour to Guinean music, which at this time was at the peak of its creativity. After he passed away, this music lost a little of its aura."
Sylla's closest affinity is with the music of Mali. On Mali: One Day On Radio Mali he picks rough diamonds by Banzoumana Sissoko, Fanta Damba, Les Ambassadeurs du Motel, Rail Band and other unfamiliar names from the late Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. "My grand-parents and my mother were Malian. I spent my first five years in Mali. I know these people, their habits, and of course their music. All West Africans are somehow coming from the great Malian Empire."
There are two styles of Malian music: Bambara and Mandingue. "They have almost the same language, but the rhythms, beat and the way they play guitar is totally different. Mandingue is played in Senegal, Guinea, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau, by the likes of Salif Keita, Mory Kanté, Sekouba Bambino, Kandia Kouyaté and Amy Koita. Bambara is represented in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and the Ivory Coast. Abdoulaye Diabate, Oumou Sangare, Dieneba Seck, Amadou & Mariam, Boubacar Traore and Ali Farka Toure are among the best-known exponents of this style."
"The main target was to put this music into a political, sociological and economic context," Sylla explains. "In Africa we have a saying: 'If you do not know where you are going, go back to where you came from.' The one who does not know his origins is a human being without a soul."
The world music expert Charlie Gillett equates these albums with the experience of discovering Prince Buster, the Skatalites and the Wailers. For me, it feels more like joining a few dots, dipping into Africa's past to help understand the present, aided by one of Africa's best musical tour guides.
'Congo: Rumba on the River', 'Guinée: Cultural Revolution', 'Mali: One Day on Radio Mali' and 'Senegal: the Teranga Spirit' are distributed by Discovery Records