Music Reviews
3:06 pm
Wed July 11, 2012

Sory Kandia Kouyaté: Guinea's Voice Of Revolution

Originally published on Wed July 11, 2012 4:33 pm

Sory Kandia Kouyaté was one of the most celebrated singers in West Africa when he died suddenly in 1977. He was just 44, and given his spectacular voice, it's a safe bet that Kouyaté would have been an international star had he lived just a few years longer. Now, some of his finest recordings have been collected on a two-disc retrospective called La Voix de la Révolution.

With Kouyaté, the voice is everything. Few African singers of any era could match him on technique, articulation or sheer power. Many of his songs, like "Tara," are part of the centuries-old Mande praise-song tradition, which he inherited through his family line. But in Kouyaté's heyday, the 1960s and '70s, that tradition was getting a jazzy, big-band makeover in Guinea.

In "Tara," the plinking notes of the ancient wooden balafon tumble right into the popular Latin rhythms of the day. Africa was opening to the world, and nothing drove the point home better than Kouyaté's sublime tenor.

One of the earliest recordings in this set, "Nina," is a love song to a girl; Kouyaté first sang it in the mid-'50s. That might seem unremarkable, except when you consider that in a world of arranged marriages, artistic declarations of romantic love were not only unusual, but revolutionary. A landmark recording, "Nina" inspired a succession of popular West African love songs.

Roughly half the tracks in the compilation are traditional performances — operatic renderings of epic stories from the past. In "Toutou Diarra," Kouyaté is accompanied by legendary players of the kora harp and the balafon.

Sory Kandia Kouyaté once sang a duet with Paul Robeson in Austria, so he did get a taste of international celebrity. But he missed the global African music boom of the 1980s and '90s. Imagining what Kouyaté might have become is one of those painful "what-ifs" in music history. The good news is that, thanks to this collection, we can discover and savor one of the finest voices Africa has ever produced.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

One of the most celebrated singers in West Africa was Sory Kandia Kouyate. His spectacular voice might have sent him to global stardom, but he died suddenly in 1977 when he was 44. Now, some of his finest recordings have been collected on a two-CD retrospective, and Banning Eyre has this review.

BANNING EYRE, BYLINE: With Sory Kandia Kouyate, the voice is everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TARA")

EYRE: It's rich, strong, pure and passionate. There aren't many African singers of any era who can match Sory Kandia Kouyate on technique, articulation or just sheer power. This song, "Tara," is part of a centuries-old Mande praise song tradition, which Kouyate inherited through his family line. But in his heyday, the 1960s and '70s, that tradition was getting a jazzy, big-band makeover in Guinea.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TARA")

EYRE: The plinking notes of the ancient wooden balafon tumble right into to the popular Latin rhythms of the day. Africa was opening to the world, and nothing drove the point home better than Kouyate's sublime tenor voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NINA")

EYRE: One of the earliest recordings in this set, "Nina," is a love song to a girl that Kouyate first sang in the mid-'50s. That might seem unremarkable except when you consider that in a world of arranged marriages, artistic declarations of romantic love were rare at the time, even revolutionary. "Nina" is a landmark that inspired a succession of popular West African love songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NINA")

EYRE: Roughly half of the tracks here are traditional performances, operatic renderings of epic stories from the past. Here, Kouyate is accompanied by legendary players of the kora harp and the balafon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOUTOU DIARRA")

EYRE: Sory Kandia Kouyate missed the global African music boom of the '80s and '90s. Imagining what he might have gone on to is one of those painful what-ifs in music history. The good news is, thanks to this collection, we can discover and savor one of the finest voices Africa has ever produced.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: Banning Eyre is senior editor at afropop.org. He reviewed "La Voix de la Revolution," "Voice of the Revolution," by Sory Kandia Kouyate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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