Music producer and record label entrepreneur, Ibrahima Sylla (1956-2013):
"I am Senegalese, from the Diakanké people in the southeast. My mother is Bambara from Koulikoro. I also have both Malian and Guinean heritage. I speak Mandingo, Bambara, Wolof, and Fulani. In fact my father, Al Hassan Sylla, and his twin brother Al Houceyne Sylla, each had four wives, most of whom were Fulani. I am one of 63 children.
"My father and his twin brother were noble religious chiefs, originally associated with the Muslim Tidjaniyya brotherhood. Their Islam was tolerant and they were closely linked to the great Mourid chief Serigne Fallou Mbacké. In 1967, my father was Mbacké’s guest of honor at the last Grand Magal of Touba. People came from all over West Africa to pay homage to my father and his twin brother, and African heads of state would consult them before taking important decisions.
"When I was thirteen, my father took me out of school and brought me to Chad, where I spent a year improving my Koranic education. I was a rich young man from Dakar, quite full of himself, who was driven to school in a Mercedes. My father wanted to rid me of this pride and bring me back to reality. He taught me humility, sharing. He took me with him on trips to Cameroon, Zaire, Central Africa, Togo and Benin. In Senegal, I had only known Afro Cuban music and American soul, looking down on anyone who listened to other music. Traveling with my father those four years, I realized that there was much more than that, I discovered many cultures. It was after this period, in 1974, that my father sent me to France to study economy and management.
"While studying in France, I collected records of Cuban music. We were a group of enthusiasts who used to get together at Pasdeloup, the famous record shop near the Luxembourg. These friends were the ones behind my Africando idea. Another enthusiast started to make compilations out of my collection, and from that I began to take an interest in making records. By the time I returned to Senegal in 1979, I had decided to work in music production. I had to tell my father. But where I come from, you go through the griots for important decisions. So I explained to my father’s griot, Mamadou Kouyaté, master of the kora and father of Soryba Kouyaté, what I wanted to do, so that he could tell my father who would then help me start up. The old griot went to talk to my father, but his words were misunderstood. Thinking that I wanted to become a musician, my father ended up slapping the griot instead of me. I left the house immediately, and my father and I did not speak for three or four years. My sister, Bintou Sylla, was a tremendous support to me through those hard times. Eventually, my father acknowledged my status as a businessman.
"I started working at the Golden Baobab studio, run by Francis Arphan Senghor, where I made albums by Orchestre Baobab, Ouza, Guilewar and the Etoile de Dakar with the young Youssou N’Dour, for Jambaar (‘the valiant,’ ‘the warriors’) Productions, co-founded with Ibrahima Fall. When I started in this business, I said to myself: ‘My father gave everything to the griots, so I am going to work with them too.’ But unlike my father who enjoyed being praised in song, I have always asked artists not to mention my name on their records. If I hear it while mixing, I take it out. In 1981, I set up my own label, Syllart Productions, and produced new albums for it by both Baobab and Ismaël Lô. In 1983 I moved to Paris, where I opened a record shop called Kubaney Musique, on the rue de Rocroy in the 10th arrondissement. There I produced my first artists from Zaire, including Bopol Mansiamina, Empire Bakuba, Quatre Etoiles, and Nyboma; also the Cabo Verde Show from Cape Verde; the salsa singer from Benin, Gnonas Pedro; Nyanka Bell from the Ivory Coast…
"I have two rules as a producer: never sign a contract with an artist for more than one album; and let the music evolve, breaking habits so you don’t do what everyone else is already doing. Before recording an album, I want to understand the artistic idea behind it. During the recording, I don’t interfere. I arrive at the end and am there for the mix. In general the musicians like to see me involved. If they don’t, they worry - especially the arrangers. I am not a musician. I can’t read music, I can’t write it and I don’t play any instrument, but I think that maybe I have a gift. Whatever the type of music, or musician, I always understand and have some idea, however small, that makes a difference. Some think this is due to my father’s gris-gris, but I think it is simply from having listened to so much music. When the recording and mixing is done, my great satisfaction is to be the first to hear the album. I have invested my money and time, and it’s like I move into a house I just built. The sound is good. Everything is right, everything is clear: that’s music, a voyage…”
- in conversation with François Bensignor, published in the liner notes to the 5-CD set 20 Years History: The Very Best of Syllart Productions (2002). Those CDs are out of print, but there are dozens if not hundreds of Sylla productions to seek out. A fan has created a nearly five-hour compilation as a Spotify playlist:
Tribute Ibrahima Sylla