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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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Music

6 Samples From 'Éthiopiques' in Hip-Hop

A brief history of Ethio-jazz cultural exchange featuring songs by Nas & Damian Marley, K'naan, Madlib and more.

This article was originally published on OkayAfrica in March, 2017. We're republishing it here for our Crossroads series.

It's 2000 something. I'm holed up in my bedroom searching for samples to chop up on Fruity Loops. While deep into the free-market jungle of Amazon's suggested music section, I stumble across a compilation of Ethiopian music with faded pictures of nine guys jamming in white suit jackets. I press play on the 30 second sample.

My mind races with the opportunities these breakbeats offered a budding beat maker. Catchy organs, swinging horns, funky guitar riffs, soulful melodies and grainy and pained vocalists swoon over love lost and gained. Sung in my mother tongue—Amharic—this was a far cry from the corny synthesizer music of the 1990s that my parents played on Saturday mornings. I could actually sample this shit.

The next day, I burn a CD and pop it into my dad's car. His eyes light up when the first notes ooze out of the speakers. “Where did you get this?" He asks puzzlingly. “The internet," I respond smiling.

In the 1970s my dad was one of thousands of high school students in Addis Ababa protesting the monarchy. The protests eventually created instability which lead to a coup d'état. The monarchy was overthrown and a Marxist styled military junta composed of low ranking officers called the Derg came to power. The new regime subsequently banned music they deemed to be counter revolutionary. When the Derg came into power, Amha Eshete, a pioneering record producer and founder of Ahma Records, fled to the US and the master recordings of his label's tracks somehow ended up in a warehouse in Greece.

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