Ibrahim Sylla, The Quincy Jones of West Africa & Afro-Latin via Cotonou

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A wonderful series of West African reissue compilations have recently been released:  Afro-Latin Via Dakar (Senegal), Kinshasha (Congo), Conakry (La Guinée), and most recently, Via Cotonou (Benin, formerly Dahomey).  All cd’s show the pervasive infatuation newly-independent West African nations had for Cuban music during the 1960s:  not only did the African musicians and bands recognize the African elements in Cuban music, but they loved the innovations and freshness of the Cuban style as well as the socio-political inspiration the Cuban revolution of 1959 gave them. Cuba was not only a musical model but also inspiring on all fronts.

I’m to do a piece on the excellent program, PRI’s The World tomorrow. It will be on Afro-Latin via Cotonou. I’ve chosen this collection because while many fans know about Congolese rumba, the Senegalese music by the great Orchestra Baobab, not everybody knows about the bands based in Cotonou, capital of Benin.  Most people probably don’t know where Benin is, its rich cultural and artistic heritage, let alone what the capital city is. Bands include Los Commandos de Cotonou, Supermen de Cotonou, Black Santiago, Negro Jazz, Gnonnas Pedro, and last, and probably the greatest band of all, Polyrhytmo de Cotonou.

These collections come via Syllart Productions in Paris.  Ibrahim Sylla, who founded the label was born in Abijan, Ivory Coast, but moved as a child to Dakar, Senegal. He later studied at the University of Paris.  He has introduced artists and bands such as Youssou N’Dour, Orchestra Baobab, and Malian diva Oumou Sangare and countless others. He is the Quincy Jones of West African music.

When running a short-lived label at A&M Records in the early 90s—Horizon Records–I went to Paris to license music from Polygram France to put out domestically. I also sought an audience with the venerable Sylla. He arrived at the café in robes and babouches, the pointy slippers West Africans wear.

I asked him politely in my best French if he wanted something to drink: “Est-ce que vous voulez quelque chose à boire?”

–“Non, bois pas, Ramadan.”  (I don’t drink, it’s Ramadan.)

I continued:  “Do you want something to eat?”

–“Non, mange pas, Ramadan.”  (I don’t eat, it’s Ramadan.)

Then he looked directly into my eyes and asked, “Combine vous voulez depenser?” (How much money do you plan on spending?) His producer’s sensibility was fully alert to new opportunities and he obviously saw cash flow coming his way.

We never got to produce anything, because the label folded. But I’m very happy to see any of his productions come out. The Afro-Latin series is superb and highly recommended. Syllart Productions is a great enterprise and enhances the worldwide spread of the African music gospel.

If you want a superb book that depicts many of his productions, I also recommend a great book by Florent Mazzoleni called L’Epopée de la Musique Africaine”—The Epic of African Music.  It’s filled with album cover art and lots of info, and although it’s all in French, there are plenty of tantalizing photos and cover art.