The Republic of Guinea
from Rags to Riches

Introduction - Demography - Climate - Historical life - Towns - Daily life
Markets - Religions - Arts - Women in Guinea - Oral tradition


For a long time the oral tradition was considered less reliable than written sources. Those Days are over. Respect for the spoken word has grown alongside an increasing interest in African music. Griots have always been prominent figures in all of Africa's ethnic groups. They have also always been musicians, and some sung epics, such as the history of Soundiata and, more recently, the ode to Samory have come down to us through the centuries.

Music: the main art form

In Guinea almost everything is said with music, which varies depending on the circumstances-worship, war, professional activities, therapy, funerals or joyous occasions. Music also differs according to social status. For example, among the Fulani nobles of Fouta it is mostly intellectual, instrumental, played on fiddles and not danced to. Dances only take place in the roundé, the farm villages inhabited by landless laborers, or villages where poor Fulani live. Each ethnic group also has its particular forms of music. On the coast, the Baga and Sosso always play the balafon and tom-tom and dance during their animist rites. In Upper Niger, Mali and Senegal the Malinke are famous for their songs backed up by the cora.

During the colonial period some musicians' organizations helped keep alive pride in belonging to a given culture. Music also played a role in the movement against colonialism and the referendum for independence in 1958. Under the First Republic everyone who could play an instrument, sing and dance to express pride in being Guinean was supported, although unfortunately music with an ideological bent predominated. Culture was practically made compulsory, and every village had to contribute songs, dance and theater to the overall movement. An extraordinary blossoming of talent took place, and it is a pity that the hunger for freedom following the end of the dictatorship was accompanied by neglect of the most spontaneous art forms. But whatever the region, Guinea is still a nation of musicians.

Today many artists still play traditional music on a wide array of age-old instruments made of wood, horn, ivory, metal and terra cotta. Everyone is familiar with the tom-torn, but there are several kinds. The Baga play the kentchep when the Deumba mask is taken out, the aflesh for the return of initiates and the huge timha for men and the tendef for women. The Nalo have the matimbo. The tabala is used to send messages in the forest while the Malinke djembé is accompanied by rattles worn on the body that are beaten with hands.

Traditional instruments still in style

The balafon, an instrument struck with small wooden sticks, originated with the Sosso but has spread throughout Guinea. So has the Sosso balla, which one of Soundiata's griots stole from Soumaoro and that has been in Niagassola ever since.

The Kissi use castanets called seevu, and the Coniagui strings of little bells.

The best-known string instrument is the nyenyeru (fiddle). Others include the Fulani hurdy-gurdy and the Malinke kora, bolon and four- or six-string koni. Wind instruments include the serdu-a flute played by the Fulani and Malinke-and the forest tulu, which is a trumpet made of elephant tusks. The Malinke also have the simbon, a whistle used by hunters after which they were eventually named.

Some contemporary groups still use these instruments. Whether or not they play traditional instruments, most modern groups compose and perform music about the problems of contemporary life, such as aids and unemployment, although they also continue to exalt timeless values such as love, home, responsibility and so on. But rhythms are influenced by international sounds-often an echo of old African music.

Famous Guinean Percussionists.

Guinea's percussionists have always been recognized as virtuosos the world over, especially since independence and the advent of sekou Toure, who played a key role in promoting the arts unti11975. The best groups include "Percussions de Guinée", which is also a dance company that was highly successful in the 1980s. Its stars were F. Kokelaere and Fatouabou Aboubacar Camara, who have left the group since. "Wofa", the group Kokelaere joined, tours the world. The lead singer of "Wassa" is Morcire Camara. "Les merveilles de Guinée" is another famous group. Led by Kemo Sanoh, it includes a group of outstanding young female percussionists called "Les Gazelles".

Percussionists are almost always inseparable from dance companies. An example is the "Ballets Africains", a national troupe founded in 1953 as "Les Ballets de Keita Fodeba". The company, which dances to modernized music, has managed to survive changes in regimes and flourish. When the Englishman R. Stein was the director, they could be seen just about everywhere and met with unanimous acclaim. Italo Zambo has been the director since 1955. One of their latest dances, Heritage, is about the legend of Balla Fasseke Kouyate, Soundiata's personal griot, who infiltrated the dangerous Soumaoro's court to learn his secrets and steal his balafon.

The "Ballet Djoliba", another national company, has lost some of its audience since 1985 but still performs. They can be seen every day on stage at the "La Paillote" theater along with the "Sanke" women's dance company, which is directed by the great dancer J. Makaule and made up of retired artists from all over the country. Famous for traditional Malinke music, the "Ballet Baga" comes from Sankaran, an area that stretches from Faranah and Kissidougou to Kouroussa and Kankan.

Ballets and orchestras

"Loi Nii", a group from Guinea's forest region founded in September 1997, performs polyphonic songs, polyrhythmic music and ritual dances. They are led by Siba Fassou, who is also a director at the National Theater.

The "Ensemble Instrumental de Guinée", which plays traditional instruments, reached the height of its popularity under sekou Toure, when it performed the best-known traditional music. "Les Nyamakalas" is a group of Fulani soloists specializing in songs and texts set to music.

Prominent figures on Guinea's music scene include Mamady Keita, a central character in Laurent Chevalier's film Djembefola. He lives in Belgium, where he has opened a percussion school. Kemoko Sanoh is a choreographer as well as a musician. El Hadj Dyeli Sory Kouyate is a great Mandingo balafon player highly esteemed by younger counterparts. So is Kahli Camara, who has played with all the groups in Guinea.

The first modern groups were founded in the early sixties. They included the "Syli Orchestre" and the "Keletigui National", made up of tambourine players whose music was based as much on traditional sources as modern beats. In 1965 a biennial music festival was created in Conakry. If a group won first place twice in a row, it became the national orchestra. That is what happened with "Bembaya Jazz", almost all of whose members have died. It was followed by "Kaloum Star", starring the saxophone player Maitre Barry.

Other saxophonists who are famous today include Momo Wandel Souma and Keletigui Traore, who owns the "La Paillote" theater. The Mandingo M'Bady Kouyate specializes in the kora and has formed a duo with his wife. Prince Diabate and Amarah Sanoh are another singing and kora-playing duo. They are currently living in the United States. Well-known solo artists include Ibro Diabate; Sekouba Bambino Diabate, who is famous in Senegal; Mory Dienideen Kouyate; the renowned Mory Kante, whose family has formed a group in Kissidougou; and the singers Kade Diawara and Dianka Diabate.

Young artists include Doura Barry, Missia Salam Diabate and the rappers Bill de Sam, Kill Point and Legitime Defense, all of whom have written interesting lyrics. For a good idea of contemporary Guinean sounds, take a look at the record catalogue of "Buda Musique", which features a collection of world music including many interesting individual artists and groups.

Until now recording studios have been scarce in Guinea, but a major private studio called "Sandys" will open at the end of 1998. The first digital cassette duplication studio in West Africa opened in 1997 and a second studio owned by a company called "Amacis" will soon be recording video and audio cassettes.

A varied theater

In Africa it is often hard to tell whether theater, which ranges from musical comedy to the historic epic, falls into the category of music or literature. As far back as before the Second World War, Guinean theater won acclaim with a play about historic events written by a student of Senegal's William Ponty, who brought together young people from throughout French West Africa. The work, entitled La rencontre du capitaine peroz et de Samory ("The Meeting Between Captain peroz and Samory") was performed in Paris during the 1937 world's fair.

In 1949, Aube africaine ("African Dawn") by Fodeba Keita, a play that encompassed dance, music and the spoken word, was very successful. The work has been revived many times because it is in a form Africans enjoy and can relate to. Years later a great, versatile Guinean artist named Souleymane Koli staged Aube africaine in Cote d'lvoire. Like many others, Koli lived in exile during the dark years of the Toure regime. He spent most of his career in Abidjan, although he has toured internationally and returned to Guinea on a regular basis since 1984. His troupe, "Koteba", performs works about everyday life, especially in the Didi series. They range from Mandingo opera to pure satire, blending song, dance and drama in a dazzling style.

The advent of independence was a turning point in Guinean theater. The period under sekou Toure is an example of what could have been excellent but was not. Almost every medium-sized city had a theater troupe, but they were only allowed to perform works of propaganda. Intellectuals, who were suspected of thinking freely and therefore of subversion, were driven into exile.

However, a few interesting works did emerge from that period, including Le deuxieme front de lutte ("The Second Front of Struggle"), Samory, Thiaroye, Soweto and, in 1982, La gourmette d'or ("The Gold Chain Bracelet"). The Toure period also saw the heyday of "Les Ballets Africains", the "Ballet Djoliba" and the "Ensemble Instrumental National", which performed at major international cultural festivals.

Despite the harsh repression, theater blossomed under the sekou Toure regime. Two actors, Fanye Toure and Marcelin Bangoura, are closely associated with the period but no longer perform. There was so much theater in those days that the breakneck production pace could not have been kept up for long. Regrettably, production has slowed down, and the shortage of venues, at least in Conakry, has not helped matters any.

However, the "Association Guinéenne des Hommes de Theatre" has organized a ten-day festival. Two plays have been put on under the aegis of "Afrique en Creations" and the "Francophonies" festival in Limoges, France-Il etait une fois l'alphabete ("Once upon a time there was a literate") starring the actress Fifi Tamsir, who was a member of Peter Brook's company, and Légende d'une vérité ("Legend of a True Story") by the "Theatre National", the country's only professional theater troupe.

Problems of new creations.

As part of the "Visage Culturel" program run by the national office of culture, the Theatre National also created DaaZaa-To starring twenty artists from the group Loi Ni. The production featured the funeral rites practised in Guinea's forest, especially dances honoring the dead. The music was performed on daman-a small tambourine played under the arm-and horns. The greatest forest musicians took part in the event, which was so successful that the National Office of Culture decided to present other little-known music and rites to the public at large.

Several private companies, such as "Phoenix Theatre" and "DTN", stage one or two plays a year. Abdoulaye Fandje Toure, Ahmed Tridiane cisse and Ibrahima S.Tounkara lead other troupes. A. Conde has tried to found several companies and to encourage young actors, but now seems to be doing more television work.
In Conakry the critical problem for the performing arts, whether dance or drama, is the shortage of theaters. Performances currently take place in the "Palais du Peuple"; "La Paillote", which specializes in dance, the "Imprimerie Patrice-Lumumba", which has a new conference room; the cultural center in Matam, a Conakry neighborhood; and the outdoor theater at the "Hotel de I'Independance". The "Stade du 28-Septembre", a stadium next to the university, is a venue for large concerts.

The "Alliance Franco-Guinéenne" built a new headquarters with a multi-purpose room behind the "Jardin du 2-Octobre" in Conakry. The building makes it easier for the organization to hold training programs, including a children's introductory acting workshop led by Souleymane Niare and an adult workshop. The dance workshop is oriented towards a mixture of African dances and contemporary western techniques. There is also a jazz workshop. The "Alliance Franco-Guinéenne" publishes a special issue of its magazine about cultural events in Conakry every year. Hopefully the initiative, which fulfil a need, will carry on getting off the ground. The issue has already enriched the existing editorial line of the magazine, which publishes short works by Guinean writers.

Movies made in Guinea

Guinean cinema-one of the earliest to develop in Africa south of the Sahara-seemed to have a bright future, but the country's isolation from the rest of the world under the dark days of the sekou Toure regime killed the fledgling industry. The govemment straightjacketed directors, which was another factor in the demise of Guinean film. They were only allowed to make propaganda movies, dampening their creativity and deterring foreign investors.

Today Guinea's film industry get no subsides and produces few movies but claims two prominent directors as native sons. Mohamed Camara is an original film-maker who has tackled normally taboo topics such as homosexuality. Cheick Doukoure, who lives in France, is famous for Le ballon d'or, which has never been shown in Guinea. David Achtar, who died recently, won an award at the Cannes Film Festival for Kitu, which has never been shown in Guinea either.

Laurent Chevalier is French but has made three films that take place in Guinea: Djembefola, L'enfant noir, which is based on a book by Camara Laye, and Baga Guinée. Primarily a documentary-maker, he is currently working on a film about the circus.

Laurent Duret, who is also French, worked with Chevalier on L'Enfant noir. He will take part in the making of the documentary Jour de l'elephant, which is about the 1958 referendum that sealed Guinea's independence from France. Valery Gaillard, a half-French, half-Guinean director, is making the film.

There are not many film-makers in Guinea. The country's film industry is contending with a double-barreled problem affecting production throughout Africa: a lack of financing and a flood of low-quality foreign films that monopolize the clientele. Moreover, African directors would rather show their films in Europe than in their own countries because the prestige and recognition are greater there.

Abstract designs and figurative art.

There can be no denying that Islam, which forbids the depiction of the human form, has done little to encourage the visual arts in Guinea. But Westerners used to minimalist modern art cannot resist the geometric designs decorating the walls and floors of some houses. One example is Fougoumba in Fulani country, where the almamys were once consecrated as religious leaders.

In contrast, masks and statues abound in places where animism still has a hold. That is especially true in forest, Lower and Upper Guinea, where the Malinke live and old beliefs persist, even among Muslims. But masks and statues are never made gratuitously to create art for art's sake. Everywhere animists live, the purpose is to create a bond between the user and the invisible world, particularly the entity concerned either by a family or a specific group. That holds true for sculptures but not paintings, with the exception of certain works painted on dugout canoes, the outside walls of huts and of course masks and statues.

Masks and statues in animist country

Masks can confer the personality of the deity or spirit they represent on the wearer. No one must know the identity of the wearer, who is always an initiate and often must not be seen by women and non-initiates. However, masks for festive occasions are not shrouded in mystery.

The best-known of Guinea's masks are the Baga nimba, which depict the goddess of fertility, a woman with large breasts and scarifications representing grains of rice, the main Baga crop. The Baga wear the masks during weddings and agrarian festivals to beseech the goddess to increase the fertility of women or the earth. Baga and Nalo women wear the wooden and raffia banda mask, which depicts a horned crocodile and invokes the water spirits for rain. The Baga's bird-shaped labemp is used on festive occasions and celebrations marking the end of initiation rites.

The Malinke koma has fangs and horns representing power and is used to confound a culprit or ward off a natural disaster. The bakoya mask, which is also Malinke, has mirrors for eyes and is worn by members of the sogore secret society to invoke their spirit's protection. The uninitiated are not allowed to see it.

The niamou, a Guerze mask, depicts a man's face and is also named after an initiation rite in Forest Guinea. It symbolizes the social hierarchy future initiates must learn to acknowledge and respect in the sacred forest as well as the discipline on which initiation is based.

Statues are also plentiful in Guinea. In the Kissidougou area, the stone pomdo of the Kissi are supposedly found in the forest after the death of a prominent figure, of whom they are the materialization. The discovery takes place after a dream is sent to an heir. The statue, dressed in fabric that has been soaked in blood from sacrifices, is carried during divination sessions.

Lastly, it should not be forgotten that all the masks and statues were once dedicated to the deity or spirit relating to their function. The materials, shapes and embedded and/or painted designs are never the result of the maker's random inspiration. For example, wood can only come from certain trees, depending on the item's purpose. In addition, only certain individuals have the right to make certain masks or sculptures, which is also the case for musical instruments, tools, looms and other items.

What is left of this civilization? Initiation rites-the source of these beliefs and ritual or ritualized items-have not completely vanished but modern life as well as the spread of Islam has made them increasingly rare.

In the past Muslims have displayed more zeal in destroying Christian objects than animist ones, in large part because Christian missionaries were not particularly tolerant until independence. But since the emergence of African clergymen, christian intransigence towards old customs has given way to some understanding.

On the other hand, Islam remains as uncompromising as ever. Although Muslims have dropped the custom of beheading "pagans", museum curators must ardently oppose attempts to destroy animist objects of worship whenever it is possible. The last great iconoclast was sekou Toure, who zealously set about wrecking idols at every opportunity and made it illegal to produce and use them.

Modern sculpture.

The production of sacred objects as such has become rare, and in any case visitors seldom see them because they are not intended for sale. But tall, beautiful statues as well as copies of masks and sculptures intended for tourists are on display at crafts centers and international fairs such as the one that took place in Conakry in May 1998.

The statues are usually very loosely based on the human body. Many are on display in the lobbies of large hotels, such as the "Independance". Across from Conakry's cathedral the highly-talented Sidme N'Kaï's workshop creates items and furniture such as the living room set that was given to Pope John Paul II during his visit to Guinea. Abdoumane Cissoko is another gifted artist. Lo Bangouma specializes in statuettes made of scrap metal. Some craftsmen, especially in Kankan, make amusing statues depicting contemporary figures from everyday life or old cars.

When Sekou Toure isolated Guinea from the rest of the world, painters felt the effects because they were cut off from the international art scene. The impact is especially visible among artists who came of age after independence. They limit themselves to figurative painting, landscapes and traditional scenes.

Contemporary painting

Chief among them is Khossa Bournama, who can be seen working with other artists in the Sandervalia hut at the national museum. He is a member of the "Association des Artistes et Createurs de Guinée" (AACG, or Organization of Guinean Artists and Designers) founded by Monique Surena.

The new generation suffers from a lack of training. Conakry does not have a school of fine arts. Young artists do not have access to grants and depend too much on sporadic contacts with foreign painters. Yet every region has a substantial number of illustrators, naive painters and decorators who can produce good results with a little encouragement and the right circumstances.

Papus Bangoura experiments with many different, usually figurative themes. Djibril Tamsir Bangoura works with various materials such as gourds and makes assemblages and collages.

The twin brothers Blaise-Pascal and Guy Guilavogui specialize in indoor and outdoor wall frescos featuring flat swaths of color. Ali Diallo's paintings are sometimes figurative, sometimes abstract. The artist Nabisco currently lives in Poitiers, France, where he works with a French painter.

In an issue of Panorama, a quarterly journal published by the "Alliance" and the Franco-Guinean library, national director of culture Bai1 Telivel Diallo spoke of his desire to organize a "training workshop for painters that would be the first step in a far-reaching program to revive the plastic arts in Guinea. Its objectives will be to encourage artists to experiment with composition, to strengthen their style and to help them discover innovative ways of painting and to find national and international outlets for Guinea's various plastic arts". Hopefully his wish will become reality.

In 1997 Christelle Bougault, a painter who graduated from the Paris school of fine arts, founded an agency called "Art'Timbo" to bring together artists in various disciplines. The aim is to help them obtain official commissions and major decorative work because artists must first of all make a decent living to enjoy the necessary freedom to perfect their style and technique. The agency's members include almost all the young painters mentioned above plus Bourama Tembely, a craftsman; Adama Diallo, a painter; Abdouramane Cissoko a sculptor; Christelle Bougault and Souleymane Niare, graphist artists and MadouSankara a painter.

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© World INvestment NEws, 2000.
This is the electronic edition of the special country report on Guinea published in Far Eastern Economic Review (Dow Jones Group)
September 28th 2000 Issue.

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