Saxophone player, flautist and band leader Keletigui Traore died in November 2008 aged 74, so the fourth release in Stern’s series anthologising Guinea's tradition-rooted "authenticité" orchestras of the 1960s and 1970s arrives with poignant timing. The (as ever) attractively-packaged and informative double-CD release covers Keletigui et Ses Tambourinis’ most creative and popular period, beginning in 1968 shortly after they’d changed their name from Orchestre de la Paillote and finishing in 1976 as the strains of soukous start to peep through the band’s Guinean groove.
Between times we are witness to the gradual infusion of indigenous influences – via balafon and flute and the adaptation of folkloric styles and songs – into the ever-present Latin and jazz influences.
The first CD – covering the period from 1968 to 1970 – has a strong Cuban edge, with horns, percussion and vocals to the fore, and electric guitar very much buried in the mix (frustratingly at times, it has to be said). But the guitar came out from under the covers as production values improved in the early ‘70s to influence the swinging, ringing sound of compatriots Bembeya Jazz amongst others.
Keletigui employed some good singers, amongst which who Manfila Kanté with his high, slightly nasal vocal; Papa Kouyaté’s cool commanding tone; and Keletigui himself. But it was the soloists who place the ensemble in the top division. The man himself led the way on alto sax and fluttering flute (and, latterly, organ), with fellow saxophonists Bigné Doumbia and Momo “Wandel” Soumah lending meaty and melodic support. Kerfala Camara’s colourful trumpet solos stand out too, and the two Condés – Linké and Sekou – contribute ringing guitar licks, while the liquid babble of balafon player Lansana Diabaté is a key driver on the tracks from the early ‘70s.
Amongst many highlights are the punchy, conga-led Cubanismo tracks such as La Bicycletta, the zestful guitar and saxophone sway of Bébé, the reinterpretation of traditional hunting song Donsoké, and Kadia Blues, a snaking jazz-blues instrumental that begs for a sultry female vocal. All of which – with the usual excellent sleeve-notes by Graeme Counsel – makes The Syliphone Years is a fitting tribute to a recently-departed great.
This review first appeared in fRoots magazine