GUINEA: Objectif Perfection - Balla Et Ses Balladins
Updated: Apr 10
A bittersweet masterpiece that celebrates liberation from colonialism
Whilst on the surface, this might seem a fun album with songs that were at the epicentre of Guinea’s “bar dancing music” scene, with simply not much more of a story to tell, Balla et Ses Balladins’ album acts as a historical landmark that, to an overly-analytical listener like myself, can pose challenging questions surrounding Marxism, decolonisation and dictatorship, that one would not expect of an album as upbeat as this to spark. Like many Guineans of the era in which it was released, I was ultimately drawn to this album because of its hypnotic tone and beautiful instrumentation. Yet this was exactly the plan of murderous, authoritarian dictator Ahmed Sékou Touré for whom nightlife was a ‘nationalist cause’ under his regime. This may be confusing to understand at first, but stick with it and you will soon learn more about the perverse complexities that gave birth to this multi-faceted album.
“... the music of Balla et ses Balladins, despite its potentially oppressive undertones, was ultimately an attempt to distance themselves from their gruelling 60 year French imperialist regime, for which the vast majority of the people voted for when offered the choice by Charles De Gaulle.”
Like many of the albums from Africa that we review on this site, we take into account that the music on the album is often likely to have been tainted, stunted or even paradoxically improved as a consequence of colonialism, dependent on one’s point of view. However, it is much more difficult to determine what to make of the obvious influence that colonialism had in producing this particular sound. As a state-sponsored group Balla et Ses Balladins were tasked with creating music that was the antidote to colonialism, music which would celebrate their so-called ‘freedom’. On the one hand, it could be claimed that the album achieves this in its entirety as it detracts from the European styles that were popularised during French colonial rule and instead utilises traditional musical instruments such as the balafon and the kora (albeit with songs sung in French) that supposedly celebrate their African roots. It is not just in its instrumentation that it seemingly honours their African heritage but also within the lyrics. The final track for instance, Keme Bourema, is about an African resistance leader in the late 19th century, who was the king of the Samorian army and is remembered for his military prowess.
Conversely though, some might claim that it barely moves away from the colonial era music, as it keeps instrumentation such as an electric guitar, a horn section and a drum kit that one might associate with Western musical stylings. Even if one tries to suggest that they mostly abandoned the Western influences from the foreground, there is a claim to be made that they have instead adopted rumba from Cuba or even Congo, thus it is not celebrating their Guinean past, but rather borrowing from another culture altogether. For instance, the songs on the record could easily disguise themselves onto a TPOK Jazz compilation album without raising too many eyebrows.
In fact, some might even put forward the argument that although the music somewhat moves away from Guinea’s colonial past and sufficiently honours their African history, it is in no way a celebration of liberty despite the fun tone. This is because music, particularly of this style, was under the control of the new regime. Though a naïve person might take his decision to sponsor bands that promote the joys of a new decolonised era through their music on face value to, the more cynical would not be outrageous to suggest that this type of intervention with music was a way to control the people and win fervour with them given the fact that Touré’s premiership was all about dominating the population. The Balladins’ band came out of the dissolution of a larger 25-piece group (the Syli Orchestre National) into numerous groups. Although the band’s trumpet player, Balla Onivogui, was the leader of the group, Touré subliminally managed to translate Marxist ideology to the population through the fluid membership of the group, with Onivogui himself being temporarily replaced after a fall-out with government officials. This indicates the Toure was trying to tell his citizens about the importance of the collective rather than highlighting individual stars.
The creation of bands such as Balla et ses Balladins at the heart of Toure’s plans, as well as the importance of a nightclub culture, is unsurprising when one considers that alcohol and dancing are great ways of distracting the population from poverty brought about by authoritarian communism. Parallels can be drawn between the cheap price of rum in Cuba alongside the collective spirit promoted by bands who would play fun music, such as the timba band Los Van Van under Fidel Castro’s dictatorship.
Yet, whilst this might sound like a series of cynical attacks on Toure’s cultural program of ‘authenticité’ that required musicians, writers, and artists to look at their past, it is far from that. It is simply stating both sides of the argument. For me, the music of Balla et ses Balladins, despite its potentially oppressive undertones, was ultimately an attempt to distance themselves from their gruelling 60 year French imperialist regime, for which the vast majority of the people voted for when offered the choice by Charles De Gaulle. Whilst most historians would determine that Toure’s regime was a total failure, like many post-colonial efforts in neighbouring countries proved to be, one cannot help but listen to the music of Balla et ses Balladins and not feel that even if the moment of respite they provided on the dancefloor perhaps served as a distraction for some of the failures of his government, it was perhaps worth it.
I have listened to Objectif Perfection on numerous occasions in the last few months, and it never fails to hypnotise me in a way that only Senegalese superstars Youssou N’Dour and Orchestra Baobab also manage. Although there are of course other non-African sonic influences that cannot be denied, no matter how much Touré wished to eradicate them, I still get the sense that the jazzy, rumba sounds are ultimately very African, considering that is where the roots of those styles lie. It still manages to move me every time I listen, so I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be dancing amongst fellow Guineans at a venue in Conakry, feeling momentarily disconnected from the worries of poverty and more importantly disconnected from the trauma of French colonial rule.
The album itself does not just refer to heavy themes of martyrdom and war as it does in the aforementioned Keme Bourema. For example, Assa is a beautiful love song. Whilst there is not a song on the record that I dislike, with Bambo having the capacity to easily be the best song were it to feature on any other album, Paulette is one of the best songs I have heard in the entirety of this challenge to listen to the best albums from every country in the world. It is nearly eight minutes of glory that makes me want to cry as much as it makes me want to dance. An album with a truly powerful track like this must be commended for its music above all else. Ultimately, whilst the record raises some questionable themes, for me it served as an opportunity not just to feel transported to a place of warmth and joy but also to learn about a country whose name in recent years has rather sadly been almost exclusively linked to Ebola. If their mission was to reach ‘perfection’ I think Balla et ses Balladins came as close as a band can get.