Sylvain Leroux is, without a shadow of a doubt, a major musician. He is also an activist who is deeply committed to preserving the music of the people of the West African country of Guinea. In doing just so, Mr Leroux has also helped preserve and grow an important aspect of the Guinean music tradition as well as the little-known musical instrument of the Guinean “Fula” people – the tambin (or “fula” flute). Moreover, he is credited with a major innovation in the design of the instrument itself; one that has enabled him to design what has come to be referred to as the chromatic tambin. But of all that he is known for, perhaps it is his dedication to Guinea in general and the fact that he spends his life fighting for and helping fund a music school for children (where he also teaches), so that the musical traditions of Guinea survive and grow. Not since the great Randy Weston, (or Verna Gillis and Roswell Rudd) has an ethnomusicologist dedicated a life to preserving African musical culture.
During the course of his musical journey in Africa – and in Conakry, Guinea, to be precise – Mr Leroux has produced several recordings featuring interpretations of Guinean music. But his 2019 recording, Tyabala is unique. In fact it may just be his masterpiece. The recording features musicians from the faculty directed here by Momo Sylia and Véronique Lamah and their students of what is now the celebrated L’école Fula Flute, the very school that Mr Leroux helps support and continues to give his time to as a teacher of a new generation of tambin players. The music is extraordinarily joyous and features the Fula flute as principal instrument in an otherwise choral setting. But the radiant, soaring harmonies are miraculously set up by a group of kora players supported by a wall of percussionists playing the djembe.
The tambin or Fula flute is an unusual instrument and is played with a sharp tilt of the head away from the instrument, similar to the manner in which Turkish musicians play the ney flute. The sound palette of the tambin is sharp and its music dwells in the treble range. Moreover, harmonic overtones are often “sung” through the instrument. This dramatically widens the palette (and the range) of the instrument as overtones take the colour and texture of the instrumentalists’ voices. This spectacular vocalese is one of the features of this recording – especially on such superbly crafted songs as “Paya Paya” and the epic narrative song, “Famille Doundounba”, which also features a remarkable chorale that sets the tone for the song, led by vocalist Bouba Mbeng and his chorus, is followed by breathtaking orchestral percussion featuring the djembe. Everywhere, we hear haunting choruses featuring “call and response” verses sung by the vocalists – perhaps a timely reminder of where The Blues, the great forebear of Jazz, began.
The trumpeter Don Cherry – one of the greatest jazz musicians to launch his later career as an ethnomusicologist – was also one of the first musicians to live and create new music in Africa. He is also credited with inventing the phrase “world music” when he was pressed by interviewers and critics to describe the then-unfamiliar turn that his avant-garde style of music had taken. The term is, of course, much-maligned term today. But I suspect this (malignant scorn) represents a rather snobbish, musically pseudo-intellectual attempt (by musicians) to distance themselves from the often explosive fusion of African, Indian and Far Eastern (such as Balinese Gamelan) music into the more acceptable Western forms of music and dance. Mr Leroux recent music often bucks that trend.
However, the musicians of L’école Fula Flute on Tyabala also present music that is highly emotive – in its traditional conception – and melodically simple. But you will also hear an old favourite here, in the form of the unadorned, yet beautifully ornamented and profoundly meditative of Sidney Bechet’s “Petite Fleur” performed by star student Aboubacar Soumah. It is a magnificent affirmation of the fusion of the familiar world of the melodic and harmonic with the older, less familiar and percussive world of music that still thrives and grows in relatively remote part of Conakry, Guinea, in West Africa.
Track list – 1: Fouta; 2: Djandjon; 3: Paya Paya; 4: Do Yara Ké; 5: Dounya Tourounara; 6: Douga; 7: Kalan; 8: Mon Choix; 9: Famille Doundounba; 10: Petite Fleur; 11: Mané; 12: Wassolo; 13: Bani; 14: Soundiata
Personnel – The Professors – Momo Sylia: Director – actor and dance; Véronique Lamah: Director – actress and vocals; Mohammed Mmah Camara: lyricist; Mamady Mansaré: Director – tambin; Bouba Mbeng: ngoni, percussion and vocals; Dhamady Kouyaté: kora; Babagallé Barry: tambin; Tanly Seydou: solfège; Sylvain Leroux: solfège, tambin, chromatic tambin, flute; The Students – Abdoulaye Camara, Aboubacar Cissé, Aboubacar Soumah, Alhassane Keita, Alhassane Sylia, Alhassane Cissé, Alseny Sylia, Fatoumata Soumah, Ibrahima Sory Soumah, Ismaël Bangoura, Makhissa Bangoura, Mohamed Dialo, Naby Camara, Seydouba Cissé, Seydouba Kouyaté, Sidiki Camara: vocals, tambin, chromatic tambin, djembe and percussion
Released – 2019
Label – Mulatta Records (42)
Runtime – 59:43