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Syllart Records: Continuing The West African Legacy Of Ibrahima Sylla

We talk to Binetou Sylla, the new label head of the legendary Syllart Records and daughter of its founder Ibrahima Sylla.


Bintou-Sylla

Photo by Camille Millerand.

We recently had the chance to chat with Binetou Sylla, the dynamic lady behind the legendary Syllart Records and daughter of the late Senegalese producer Ibrahima Sory Sylla, founder of the label. If there was ever an imprint to capture the soul of modern African music, Syllart is it. In many ways, Syllart is the continent’s equivalent to Motown, Stax or Fania Records. Quality, authenticity, innovation and heritage: the record label owns the largest African music catalog in the world, spanning the last sixty years of sonic creation.

This we owe to one man, the late Ibrahima Sylla, genial music producer and founder of Syllart Productions. In many ways, Ibrahima is one of the unsung heroes of our times; a man who probably did more than anyone for African pop music and its global influence. A humble virtuoso who belongs in the company of giants like Quincy Jones. Yet few in the public actually know his name.

Ibrahima was indeed a discreet man. He shied away from the media. “Most people did not know what he looked like, unless they’d worked with him directly,” mentions his daughter Binetou. “He preferred to let his work, his music speak for him. He was an ambassador for African music.” Ibrahima created space where creativity could blossom, and provided musicians with a platform dedicated to sharing this unique heritage with the world. “My father excelled at scouting new talent and used Syllart as a launching pad for many who would rise to global stardom.” The list is impressive: Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare, Pepe Kalle, Ismael Lo, Alpha Blondy and Africando to name just a few.

The Sylla family in the studio. Photo by Syllart Records.

Ibrahima was a product of his time, growing up in the post-independence days — a thrilling era of political and cultural freedom. The son of a well-known marabout who advised many leaders in the new African ruling class, Sylla traveled across the continent developing a strong pan-African outlook, thinking beyond borders to unite fellow Africans with music, both at home and in the diaspora. His work totally reflects this. The Syllart sound stands for innovative music from all corners of the continent, from Dakar to Kinshasa, Bamako to Abidjan, a borderless African sound which caters to music lovers the world over.

His career started in the late 1970s, producing friends in Senegal, with Youssou N’Dour’s Etoile de Dakar and the Orchestra Baobab band, when Afro-Cuban orchestras were ruling West African dancefloors. In 1981, he took the label to Paris with the goal of breaking away from the Afro-Cuban tradition and developing a new African sound. From its studios in the French capital’s 18th arrondissement, Syllart helped the emergence of hugely influential pop genres such as soukous and mbalax.

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