Guinean music reflects the country’s multi-ethnic background. And while there are many similarities, different ethnic groups also have their own styles, instrumentation, and techniques. For example, music of the Mandé people generally was performed by djelis, traveling musicians who more or less functioned as singers and historians, singing praises to the high-ranking members of the nobility. Djelis (sometimes called griots) were pretty common throughout West and Central Africa.
Many of the instruments were common instruments found in other areas of West Africa. Some of the instruments you’ll find in traditional Guinean music are the ngoni (related to the banjo), the balafon (related to xylophones and marimbas), the kora (like a cross between a harp and a lute), and a variety of drums including the dunun (a cylindrical drum tuned with ropes and played with a stick that can be either straight or curved depending on the region it’s played) and the djembe (a goblet-shaped drum tuned with ropes and played with the hand; often played in tandem with the dunun.). After WWII, the guitar was introduced to Guinea and changed the sound of Guinean music. Some musicians developed their own ways of playing the guitar, like Kanté Facelli and Kanté Manfila.
Traditional dance in Guinea shares many of the same similarities with dance traditions in other Sub-Saharan cultures. Dancing tends to have a very rhythmic accompaniment utilizing a variety of drums and other instruments. Rhythms tend to be polyrhythmic, meaning that there are different parts performed at the same time. For the most part, dancing tends to be ritualistic and functional. There are dances denoted as warrior dances, love dances (used for weddings, births, anniversaries and such), rites of passage and coming of age dances to formally make the transition between childhood and adulthood, welcoming dances performed for newcomers, and religious-based dances (used for call spirits or pay homage to spirits). The Yankadi dance of Guinea is a slow dance with smooth steps, while the Macru dance has much more energy and danced at a faster tempo. Men and women sometimes dance with scarves, and they place the scarf on the one whom they want to dance with.
After Guinea gained its independence, popular music began to take off. By this time, most modern Guinean music is sung in French, although you’ll still find much of the traditional music sung in local languages. Many bands and musicians began to become influenced by music from abroad, especially the music of Cuba and other areas in the Caribbean. They brought these styles back to Guinea where they mixed it with traditional Guinean styles, and many musicians recorded with the famous Syliphone Records.
One of the most famous Guinean musicians is Mory Kante. One of his most famous songs is “Yeke Yeke” that I listened to off of his Best Of album. Utilizing modern instruments, he tends to use a variety of balafon/xylophone/marimba-like instruments, mixing higher-pitched instruments with lower-pitched ones, accompanied by brass instruments as well. The melody lines definitely seem to be influenced from traditional African styles. He often utilizes a leader with a chorus answering. The drumbeats were also pretty indicative of a rock/soft rock/smooth jazz style. I found this video where he's performing with Santana.
I also listened to Keletigui Et Ses Tambourinis. I really liked the album The Syliphone Years. I can tell there was some Cuban/Latin influence in their music. The Latin rhythms and the muted trumpet gave it away. Of course, if you look at history, there are a lot of similarities between West African music and that of many places in the Caribbean, seeing how a large portion of the Caribbean people originally came from West African countries. It’s a great album – you should look it up on Spotify.
Balla Et Ses Balladins uses much of the same kind of instrumentation, but I think they incorporate more harmony in their vocal lines. The music is pretty relaxing, and I think it has to do a lot with the guitar lines and the types of guitars they use. I wish I knew more about different kinds of guitars so that I can identify them more accurately when I listen to them. (Sorry, I primarily played French horn, piano, mallet percussion and was a singer, although I just bought a mandolin earlier this year but haven’t progressed farther than a few basic lessons.) Whichever guitar gives them their iconic African sound is higher-pitched and kind of echo-y. I like that sound, whatever it is.
Another one of the most famous bands from Guinea is the Bembeya Jazz National. They were quite influenced by the music of Cuba and jazz of the US. I listened to their album The Syliphone Years (so, I guess they really were a popular recording studio). To me, they don’t sound that different from the previous two groups I just mentioned. So, I suppose I like them by default since the entire style is one that I enjoy.
Guinea also has its own hip-hop crowd as well. Probably the most well-known rapper from Guinea is the group Kill Point. I didn’t find anything on Spotify, but they do have some videos on YouTube. I listened to a few of their songs. They’re not bad, and their flow is pretty good.
There’s a rap festival called the African Rap Festival held in Conakry each year that always brings a good crowd. The festival actually made the news this year because of a stampede that killed 24 festival-goers. But outside of that tragic occurrence, this festival has always been a key way new artists get heard, and it also serves as a way to promote Guinean music.
Up next: the food