Balla et Ses Balladins were one of the big four Guinean orchestras of the post-independence era, bringing a grandeur to President Sékou Touré's ‘authenticité’ programme of cultural realignment with their majestic recordings for the Syliphone label under the leadership of trumpeter Balla Onivogui and trombonist Pivi Moriba.
The seemingly out of tune (but extraordinarily seductive) horn sections were something of a signature sound for this era of Guinean music, and the Balladins' brass arrangements exuded a dreamy quality, bending and swaying in and out of focus over what were initially simple Latinised popular tunes which became progressively more ambitious in scope as the band looked to traditional Mandinka influences for inspiration.
This exceptional double-CD compilation (the third in what is proving to be an essential series of adroitly mastered and packaged releases) joins the band at a peak that lasted from the late '60s (as L'Orchestre du Jardin du Guinée) through to 1980 and their final, momentous Syliphone release, Objectif Perfection.
Traces of the Latin influence were still there at the start of this period, vocalists Emile "Benny" Soumah and Manfila "Soba" Kané heartily intoning over dance numbers driven by those off-centre horns, Cuban rhythms and the ringing electric guitar breaks of Sekou “Le Docteur” Diabaté.
By the early '70s, Diabaté - one of the great lyrical guitar players to come out of Africa - and rhythm guitarist Kemo Kouyaté were the key components in the move to epic, griot-inspired pieces. On the first of these, Sara 70, the guitarists pick their mellifluous way between vocals, percussion and elongated horn breaks to produce ten minutes of music as mesmerising as just about any produced by the great West African orchestras of the period. And by 1980 - with tracks like Bambo and the near-perfect harmonic interplay of Paulette from Objectif Perfection - Balla et Ses Balladins have reached an understated, instinctive sophistication that places them squarely between (and arguably right up there alongside) the brass-led dance music of compatriots Bembeya Jazz and the dry, dense sound of Mali's Super Rail Band. Yes, that good. Highly recommended.
This review first appeared in fRoots magazine.