Salif’s Life

Salifou’s Life and Achievements


Salifou Sylla was born into a musical family in Guinea. His father, also Salifou Sylla, a tailor and dancer died when little Salif was 1 years old. His uncle, Fode Kouyate, enjoyed a successful recording career with the traditional group, Fatala. He spent a substantial amount of time with his grandma as his mother was often travelling and trading to make ends meet. The closest person in his life was his brother Ousmane, who died 2 years after Salif. Salif grew up as an African country boy, hunting in the bush, climbing trees for fruit and nuts, for some time living by the seaside where his mum used to own a small boat; this finished when she hired the boat out to a man who didn’t come back.


Many of his friends died young in circumstances that I can’t imagine, for instance being strangled by a snake and drowning in the sea. Like most of his contemporaries he attended a Muslim school to learn to read and write the teachings of the Koran. He didn’t start music until he was a teenager after learning as an apprentice to do building work. Once he decided to learn music however he became very serious, apparently making everybody practice all day, every day. At first he primarily trained as a dancer.

He founded, choreographed and performed African rap with the dance group Septcopains. They recorded a video in Ivory Coast, of which sadly no copy survives. In this period he also performed as a comedian.


He then toured and worked all over West Africa: Senegal, Ivory Coast, Mali, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Sierra Leon. Salifou’s culture and language was Susu, but he knew about 10 other West African languages and also the songs, music and dances from different cultures (Mandinka, Jolla, etc.). He knew the whole piece with all the different parts for the instruments, the song, dance and story and significance of it and also the history behind the different rhythms.

When landing in Gambia he got interested in learning traditional African music and he quickly learnt to play all the different instruments that make up an African ensemble: Djembe(Lead drum); Dun-dun, Sangban, Kenkeni (bass-drums); Kirin (wooden slit drums); Gongoma (calabash with 4 tones); Bolong (African Bass, 4 strings),Siko (square drum) and various small instruments. He learnt with the late Munsa Sylla and played with Alatantou who were led by Salif’s first dance teacher Maitre Samsou Camara.


When he came to England he worked with Sewa-Education, Drumcafe, Joliba drum school, Music For Change, Live Music Now, Parenting Project Stratford-upon-Avon, Drumming on the Isle of White, and many more individual projects. He recorded music for the Wild Thornberries Movie and he appeared in & recorded for TV programs. He performed in and out of Europe and recorded a CD with his group Tamala London. (See Music)

He always had big plans for the future including to advance opportunities for the people he left at home. He taught his two young sons many valuable skills already and it is so sad that he can’t continue to do so.


Salifou chose the name Alanouwaly, which means “Thank God” in Susu (Salif’’s language), for his website. So “Thank God for Salifou Sylla” is a very fitting name for his foundation/legacy. When writing for his website I realized that there was so much more to him than making a living as a musician. Music and art at their best are about communicating the deeper meanings of shared human experience. They unify and connect people. Salifou had the gift to do this.

Salifou was always in a rush to achieve his aims, namely to create opportunities for those he left behind and to impart his deep knowledge of African music, dance and culture to those here who wanted to know it. I often found if someone was interested he would sit for hours with them in his shed and teach them for free. He also had made links with like-minded groups here such as Drumzkool in the Colchester area. Drumzkool are a very accomplished group of children, aged 8-11, who he also taught and guided for free.


Salifou knew highly complex music and traditions from all over West-Africa and I always felt that it was highly beneficial for everyone here to learn and appreciate his African culture, especially Guinean culture; it has it’s own unique and highly developed rich traditions.  Salifou wanted people to understand, appreciate and respect where he came from.

Tamala Africa09

Salifou formed Tamala Africa in Gambia for his brother Ousmane Coumbassa, who was the closest person in his life. Tamala are a constantly changing collective of 25 Guinean musicians living in Gambia. He supported them financially and with anything else he could. Ousmane was the heart and soul of Tamala, but he also died at the age of 29 of suspected Malaria. The 2 brothers were close in life and joined in death, both are sorely missed by all who knew them.


At the time of his death he had started to build a centre for music in Guinea to teach and show the wonderful music of Guinea.

Salifou was not prejudiced against anybody, he made everybody his family, he accepted everybody and could work with anybody. He had this huge gift of connecting people from all sorts of backgrounds through his music and personality.

I feel we owe it to him to continue this work and the world deserves to receive his gifts and ideas even posthumously. I think we should learn from his life and try to practice the immense generosity he showed everyone and which was actually too much for one human being to carry. His many different laughs and giggles still echo around the house and the places he has been. He leaves a huge silence that needs to be filled.

Hanna Heissenbuettel, widow of Salifou Sylla  2009


Last photo of Salif alive with his brother Ousmane, who died 2010