Ibrahima Sylla: Visionary producer who put West African acts like Salif Keita and Youssou N'Dour on the world-music map
Thursday 23 January 2014
Ibrahima Sylla was a pivotal and inspirational figure in world music. Over the last 35 years his Syllart production company and label issued over a thousand releases by artists like Salif Keita, Ismaël Lô, Baaba Maal, Oumou Sangaré and Youssou N'Dour – who called him "a noble man, a visionary. Ibrahima devoted his whole life to the development of African music."
He had a wonderful ear attuned to the crossover potential of the West African acts he helped to prominence in the second half of the 1980s, but he also ensured they kept enough of their "roots" to engage home markets. An enthusiast as much as an entrepreneur, he often played an executive-producer role but could be more hands-on. In 1986 he paired Keïta with two French keyboard-players and arrangers, François Bréant and Jean-Philippe Rykiel, to produce the distinctive tracks on Soro, the Malian vocalist's sublime breakthrough album.
Sylla owned the biggest record collection of African music in the world, as well as all of James Brown's catalogue and 6,000 Cuban records. In the early 1990s his passion for Latin American music prompted him to create the "Africando" project, an infectious Afro-Cuban blend featuring New York-based salsa players and Senegalese vocalists and musicians under the direction of arranger and co-producer Boncana Maïga. Something of a Sylla trademark, Africando – meaning "Africa reunited" in the Wolof language of Senegal – grew into a steady-selling series of eight albums.
Born in 1956, he was the son of a Marabout – religious leader of the Diakanké tribe – and accompanied his father on his travels throughout West and Central Africa. Steeped in the griot tradition, he went on to work with all the artists who took this storytelling idiom into pop culture. His father disapproved of his interest in music and packed him off to business school in Paris but this only fuelled his determination to become involved in music.
In 1979 he teamed up with Francis Senghor, son of the Senegalese president, to record material with the two prominent groups of the era, Orchestra Baobab and Étoile de Dakar featuring N'Dour. Known as mbalax, their fusion of African and Cuban rhythms and their blend of traditional melodies and contemporary ingredients grew in popularity particularly thanks to Sylla. From 1981 he based his Syllart company in Paris and reconciled a need for authenticity with a degree of commercial success. The fact that it grew into the African equivalent of Motown or Stax pleased its founder. "I've always been a great believer in producing artists from different countries," said Sylla, who died after a long illness. "I tried to open up new markets."
Ibrahima Sylla, music producer and label owner: born Kaolack, Senegal 2 April 1956; married Tapa (five children); died Paris 30 December 2013.
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