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After independence in 1958 Guinea severed ties with France and turned to the Soviet Union. The first President, Ahmed Sekou Toure, pursued a revolutionary Socialist agenda and crushed political opposition. Tens of thousands of people disappeared, or were tortured and executed, during his 26-year regime.

Economic mismanagement and repression culminated in riots in 1977. These led to some relaxation of state control of the economy. But it was only after the death in 1984 of Ahmed Sekou Toure, and the seizure of power by Lansana Conte and other officers, that the Socialist experiment was abandoned - without reversing poverty. In 2000 Guinea became home to up to half a million refugees fleeing fighting in Sierra Leone and Liberia. This increased the strain on its economy and generated suspicion and ethnic tension, amid mutual accusations of attempts at destabilisation and border attacks. 

In Guinea, some still talk about the Sosso Balafon This is a historical reference, and it helps to explain the connection between a modern nation and an ancient instrument. The Manding Empire rose early in the 13th. century with the ascendance of its first king, Sundiata Keita. The epic tale of Sundiata's transformation from invalid child to all-powerful ruler remains the quintessential legend of Griot lore eight centuries later. Sundiata's chief adversary in this epic is Soumaoro Kante, the Sosso king, whose kingdom lay within the region we now call Guinea. Soumaoro was a sorcerer of fearsome power. He ruled with an iron hand, and kept tight controls on his people.

As the story goes, spirits gave Soumaoro the first Balafon, and he kept it for his own pleasure. No one else dared play it. During his wars with Sundiata, Soumaoro managed to capture Sundiata's close friend and Griot. As a prisoner in the Sosso king's home, the Griot came upon the coveted Balafon, and ventured to play it. Though off on a hunting trip at the time, Soumaoro instantly heard the sound and returned to confront the Griot. But instead of killing him, Soumaoro found himself deeply moved by the Griot's performance and ceremoniously authorized him alone to play the magical instrument.

Soumaoro dubbed the Griot Bala Fask... Balafon player.... and Fask became the first public Balafonist. He continued to play at high ceremonies even after Soumaoro's defeat and the rise of Sundiata. Fask's death, the Kuyat family in what is now Guinea became the official keepers of the original instrument, and there is an elaborate ritual for passing along the relic to the next "keeper" or Balatigui. The instrument has reportedly survived with only minor modifications.

One of Fask's descendents, El Hadj Jeli Sory Kuyat, from Kindia, Guinea, has played a major role in introducing the Balafon to the world at large. He toured the world with the Djoliba Ballet between 1965 and 1969. At the age of 70, Jeli Sory Kuyat accompanied Malian Griot star Kandia Kuyat in "Africa Oy," a showcase of traditional African music that toured widely in Europe and North America.


The Music of Guinea

Saidow Sow  

Sekouba Bambino  

Binta Laly Sow  

Ibro Diabate

Lame Sidibe

Sory Kandia

Sekou Bembeya Diabate

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