Badjibi, the octogenarian director of one of Conakry's largest private dance troupes, spoke with me about the shortcomings of the current generation of Guinean performing artists: “I want the next generation to become like us, even to surpass us,” he said. “Our time has passed, so if they listen to us, they can go further. But if they don't listen, they will lose out. The day we are no longer here, maybe they’ll realize, but it will be too late.” The directors of dance troupes, or “ballets” in Guinea's capital city of Conakry, regularly speak in such disapproving terms about younger dancers and musicians. These elders lament that in their hurry to make it big, young performing artists play and dance too fast and aren't interested in the specific rural histories of dances they perform: hence they mix movements indiscriminately between once-discrete dances, resulting in cultural loss. Elders suggest, in contrast, that members of their own socialist generation—trained between 1958 and 1984—were loyal guardians of national culture. Badjibi's comments exemplify a broader discourse of nationhood and generation that is playing out at the level of cultural production in Conakry.
In making sense of the contestations around dance in Guinea, I employ Deborah Durham's definition of generations as “age-conscious cohorts” produced by “rapid shifts in experience.” Artists trained during Guinea's sociaist period or “First Republic” (1958–84), who now direct most of the dance troupes in Conakry, comprise the cohort of people I refer to as elders. I use the term youth to refer to those who were trained after the death of socialist president Sékou Touré in 1984. While there are arguably multiple ways of parsing either of these cohorts, much of the generational tension expressed among Conakry's performing artists may be understood through the lens of political-economic change in Guinea, namely the shift from state-socialism to neoliberal capitalism that began in the mid-1980s. Notably, while elderly artists speak of vanishing culture, dance troupes continue to emerge all over the city. Rites of passage in Conakry (including weddings, births, and circumcisions) are animated by performers who train in such troupes, and young dancers and musicians cultivate productive careers, often with international trajectories of touring and teaching.