When Guinean singer Sory Kandia Kouyaté died suddenly in 1977, just 44 years old, he was a West African legend, without a doubt one of the most powerful and mesmerizing African singers alive. His death was a double tragedy for it fell at the dawn of a new era for African music. This amazing griot-turned-band-frontman never got to tour widely in Europe, to record in Paris, or work with producers to fashion a truly international sound, as Salif Keita, Mory Kante and others did. But when you listen to the performances on this double-CD box set, you understand right away that had Kouyaté lived to do those things, we would likely remember him as an Afropop giant like Keita and Kante. The voice is that good, in fact, better.
“Nina,” one of the earliest recordings here (1961) is a youthful love song to a girl, accompanied by a somewhat crusty acoustic guitar and light hand percussion, Kouyaté puts out a wailing vocal, reminiscent of the young Youssou N’Dour in his first sessions with Etoiles de Dakar. “Nina,” by the way, was an inspiration for the Malian classic “Diaraby (My Love),” recorded a few years later by Fanta Sacko, and considered a landmark in celebrating the idea of marrying for love, as opposed to by family arrangement. Sory Kandia Kouyaté was there first.
This set includes a number of traditional recordings of Mande classics, some accompanied by Sidiki Diabaté (Toumani’s dad!) on kora, and Djeli Sory Kouyaté on balafon, and the singer himself on ngoni. A long, brooding read of “Sagadougou” is particularly satisfying. These court music recordings—known to longtime collectors—are sublime examples of the high art of the Mande griot, and Kouyaté’s gale-force vocals are otherworldly, so strong and clear you may feel moved to throw money at the speakers as you listen.
Perhaps less well known are the band recordings, where the griot’s art is blended with Latin grooves (“Minawa”) big band brass (“Tara”), and the emerging African “rumba” sound (“Tinkisso”). The opening track “N’na,” an homage to Kouyaté’s mother, who died when he was young, is a standout among the band tracks, with a heartbreaking vocal, a smoldering groove and stinging electric guitar as good as anything the ‘70s heard from Guinean bands like Bembeya Jazz and Balla et Ses Balladins, or from Mali’s Rail Band of Bamako. Once again, Kouyaté’s voice and delivery put him in a class of his own.
As with Stern’s compilations of Franco, Tabu Ley and others, this set comes with long, excellent sleeve notes that put the artist and music in strong historic context. These were the early days of Sekou Touré’s Guinea, where no public art was untouched by politics. The author of this set of notes, Jusin Morel Jr., is a veteran Conakry musician and broadcaster, well positioned to tell this important story. If Sory Kandia Kouyaté has been overlooked in past accounts of the West African music story, that should end here. To listen to this collection is to understand that for all the spectacular singers this region has given us, perhaps the best one left us before the world was even paying attention.