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African Legends

Mory Kanté

By Jeff Tamarkin
Published November 17, 2006

Mory Kanté is a living bridge between hundreds of years of West African Mande griot tradition (wordsmiths who pass along history orally through poetry and song) and the modern world.

Welding his instrument of choice, the kora (West African harp), to modern dance rhythms, he both carries on his family’s heritage and elevates it to a more accessible place.

Born March 29, 1950 in Albadania, Guinea, Kanté was one of 38 (yes, 38) children sired by El Hadj Djelifode, a local griot leader. Legend dictates that little Mory was already able to pick out a tune on the balafon (African xylophone) before he could speak.

Whether or not that story is apocryphal, his talent was unquestionable, and at 15 Kanté was sent to Bamako, Mali, to study the griot’s role. He also absorbed music from everywhere, showing a particular interest in American R&B. In 1971 he joined Mali’s Rail Band as guitarist and balafonist; two years later he replaced Salif Keita as the group’s vocalist.

By 1977, having discovered and grown proficient on the kora, Kanté left Bamako for Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire. There he formed a 35-piece band, Les Milieus Branches, which incorporated American-style funk into their arrangements. In 1981, Kanté released his first solo album, Courougnegne, which he followed with Mory Kanté In Paris and 10 Kola Nuts.

True stardom didn’t arrive until 1987 though, when, for his Akwaba Beach album, Kanté recorded a faster, more beat-heavy version of his earlier composition “Yéké Yéké,” a track the BBC once described as “an inspired fusion of Mandinka kora and black American house music.” A huge hit in Europe and West Africa, the song established Mory Kanté as a major name in Afropop—Leonardo DiCaprio even used a remix of the track in his film The Beach.

Much of his subsequent recorded work remained in the danceable vein, and Kanté maintained a consistently heavy touring schedule to keep his name in the forefront. For 2004’s Sabou album, however, Kanté returned to his acoustic roots, redefining his sound and giving his career new life.

Recommended Recordings

Akwaba Beach (Barclay)
Un A Paris (Barclay)
Sabou (Riverboat)