Mory Kante

Born : 24/2 /1950 in Albadaria (Guinea)
Country : Guinea
Category : Composer / Male Artist / Songwriter
Style of music : world music

A single hit can be the "tree" that hides the entire forest. To those who only know Mory Kante through "YékéYéké", we highly recommend they treat themselves to a short trip to Conakry or Bamako. Once there they'll hear the powerful voices of men and women griots filling the courtyards of villages as they sing the praises of Soundiatta. Thanks to world music, Mory has made a breakthrough, and Kanté has added its building block to the concept of world music. But now, it is time to discover African music.

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A single hit can be the "tree" that hides the entire forest. To those who only know Mory Kante through "YékéYéké", we highly recommend they treat themselves to a short trip to Conakry or Bamako. Once there they'll hear the powerful voices of men and women griots filling the courtyards of villages as they sing the praises of Soundiatta. Thanks to world music, Mory has made a breakthrough, and Kanté has added its building block to the concept of world music. But now, it is time to discover African music.

In the heart of the Mandingo Empire, in a small village in Southern Guinea called Albadaria, near Kissidougou, Mory Kanté was born on February 24, 1950. His father, El Hadj Djelifodé Kanté was already an old man when Mory came into this world as one of the youngest of his father's 38 children. The Kanté family is a famous family of "griots"; the griot is a kind of poet, singer, historian and journalist wrapped into one, a purveyor of living history whose role from time immemorial has been to tell the endless stories of families and native peoples through music. Both of Mory's parents were griots, an inherited trade, and his mother's father was a powerful chief griot with a tribe of about 60 members. The child's destiny was naturally to become a "jali", that's Mandingo for "griot".

The apprentice griot

In the beginning, Mory was brought up by his Malian mother, Fatouma Kamissoko, and he attended French school. At 7, his family sent him to Bamako, the capital of Mali, to live with his aunt, Maman Ba Kamissoko, another famous griot. Until about the age of 15, he followed instruction in traditional rituals, singing and the "balafon" (a wood vibraphone). Along the way he participated in numerous family celebrations, and official ceremonies which gave him a great deal of experience as a musician and a singer.

In the 1960s, the very young Republic of Mali was bathed in a number of musical influences: Zairian rumba, Cuban salsa, British/American pop and rock. Even as a youth, Mory was fascinated by this new electric music and thus learned to play guitar. Backed by his extensive experience in traditional music, he took a more modern direction which lead him a long way from his family roots. In 1968, he left school to enter the Bamako Arts Institute. But by 1969, he'd quit this school to play in different orchestras, the equivalent of a "band" in the West. His first brush with fame came from playing in the all night, open air Malian dance halls, the "Apollos".

In 1971, the 21 year old Mory was discovered by saxophone player Tidiane Koné, who asked him to join his band, the Rail Band of Bamako, a famous orchestra at the station hotel. Mory accepted and joined this orchestra whose singer was none other than the Malian, Salif Keïta.

Kora

When Keïta left the band in 1973, Mory Kanté replaced him on lead vocals. Initially reticent, he soon took a liking to this new role. The group toured through West Africa where Mory soon became well known. In 1976, he received the "Golden voice" award in Nigeria. At the same time, he learned to play the kora and transgressed the tradition which says that the balafon should be his family's instrument of honor. Before long he became a virtuoso on this 21-string harp. He also used his talents as composer to write music for choirs and ballets. Finally, he recorded "the Exile of Soundiatta, the founder of the Mandingo Empire" with the Rail Band, a long journey in the purest griot tradition. In 1977, he undertook a personal tour of the empire's great historical sites where he met several masters of the tradition to perfect his role as griot. In spite of the modern variations he imposed on the musical tradition, Mory Kanté never cast aside his family legacy.

In 1978, Mory moved to Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, a city with a lively musical scene, where, more importantly, there are many more means to work and record. The musician then grew away from the Rail Band, and surrounded himself with a new group of musicians, including Djeli Moussa Diawara. From now on the kora would hold the focus of his work, and he began to dream about renewing traditional music by integrating Western sounds and rhythms. The band was hired by several of the city's biggest restaurants anxious to find an original way of provide entertaining evenings. The timing was perfect for Mory Kanté to launch into musical mixes never heard before. To traditional tunes, he added a bit of rock or funk, and in the same way, he reworked African-American standards using the kora, the djembé (drum) or the bolon (African bass with 3 strings to which Mory adds another 2). The groundwork for a new style is set. Success was immediate, even if this modernisation of traditional music was not universally appreciated by his people and by purists. He was often referred to as the "terrible child" by the media of the period.

In Los Angeles, Mory Kanté recorded his first album "Courougnegre" in 1981 on the Ebony label, owned by Gérard Chess. The artist refined his happy mixes of tradition and modernism, using a blend of traditional and electric instruments. Already known in West Africa, Mory became a star throughout the continent. The musical bridge he created between Africa and the West was generally well accepted. Backed by this success, he created a major ballet for the French Cultural Center in Abidjan. On stage, the troupe included 75 artists: a choir, musicians and dancers. Over the next few years, Mory would regularly appear with an orchestra of 20 people. But Europe is where this Guinean musician wanted to work.

Residence Permit

This desire became a reality in 1984. Alone, while his wife and children stayed in Abidjan, Mory Kant\é arrived in France in the midst of winter with the avowed intention to go even further in his musical experiences and to make a name for himself in Europe. In France, Mory Kanté was not a star and starting out was difficult. However, African music had really taken off in the West in the 1980's with the birth of world music a mix of traditional rhythms from around the world blended with modern sounds: rock, funk, jazz or synthetic. Mory, who hadn't waited for the 80's to get into these kind of mixes, quickly made a name for himself in the musical market.

He released his first album "Mory Kanté in Paris", produced by African producer Aboudou Lassissi in 1984. With good critical and public acclaim, Mory Kanté became well known within a few months. He performed concerts throughout Europe, including Italy where he became a big star. As an immigrant without papers, he became an essential figure in the world scene. In October 1984, he played at Paris' Mutualit\'e9. In December at the New Morning. In April 1985, he was invited to the Bourges Spring Festival. Then from September 12 to October 12, Jacques Higelin, whom he met years earlier in Africa, invited him to play with him at Bercy in front of 16,000 people every night along with the Senegalese singer Youssou N'dour.

In 1985, the Cameroon musician Manu Dibango took the initiative to invite African artists to record a song for the Ethiopians, who were then victims of a terrible famine. Mory Kanté was naturally part of the project.

In Italy, he met US producer David Sancious who had made a name for himself while working with Bruce Springsteen. The blend of these two talents gave birth to a third album, "Ten Cola Nuts" released in 1986 on the French label Barclay. These cola nuts represented ritual offerings and good luck wishes. The kora was still at the center of the album but synthesizers and horns fill out the whole. The album was well crafted and the press acclaimed it as sublime. Sales were mediocre, but this time, Mory Kanté had really found a musical and cultural balance.

Gorea

Following the death of his father at more than 100 years old, the young Guinea griot undertook a very long tour kicking off at the Zenith in Paris on May 29. In June, he stopped off in Ivory Coast and Senegal to participate in an anti-apartheid gathering organized on June 14, then on to the island of Gorea, the slave island, off the Dakar coast. During the summer, he toured France and Italy before launching an international tour that took him to North Africa, then the United States, Japan and Australia. Everywhere he went, he discovered a public open to this African culture, particularly to Mandingo. On stage, Mory was surrounded by 16 musicians and 7 dancers. The Mory Kante group is a reflection of his music, deeply hybrid: France, United States, South Africa, Mali, Senegal, Nicaragua, Great Britain and Sweden, a blend of nationalities sharing their cultures and their experiences.

Electric griot

The following year in 1987, the artist now nicknamed the "electric griot" reached the peak of his success with a new album "Akwaba Beach". Recorded in collaboration with the English producer Nick Patrick, under the benevolent and generous supervision of the president of Barclay, Philippe Constantin, this album marked the triumph of Mandingo funk through one song in particular, "YékéYéké". It ran up the charts around the world, starting in the Netherlands. Composed in the early 80s, the song was already on the "Mory Kanté in Paris" album, but unhappy with this first version, he decided to re-record it. Bingo! The song became an exceptional success to which audiences around the world were to dance. In a few years, the single had sold millions, and had been transformed, adapted, remixed and recorded many times in various languages such as Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Portuguese, English and Spanish. With "Yéké Yéké", Mory Kanté becomes the best selling African artist and arguably the most well known in the world. In July 1988, the song "Yéké Yéké" reached No. 1 in the Pan-European chart established by Billboard magazine, the famous US trade weekly.

A month after having received a golden disk award in France in October 1988, Mory Kanté was awarded the French Grammy in Paris for the best French-language album of the year.

In January 1990, he went back to the studios in Brussels, then in Los Angeles, to put the final touches to his album "Touma" ("The instant"). For this occasion, and strengthened by his reputation, he surrounded himself with big names in the music world such as the Chicano-American Carlos Santana (very well known in Africa), and the South African, Ray Phiri. The process was similar to "Akwaba Beach" and the result a subtle and sophisticated mix of pop and Mandingo tradition. The album was released in September 1990. With both the advantages and disadvantages of the immense success of the previous album, sales barely reached gold in France, and sold a million copies abroad.

Harlem

On July 14, 1990, he represented France along with Khaled at a giant concert in New York's Central Park, in front of thousands of New Yorkers. In November, still in New York, he participated in the French-language Gala at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem where his idol, James Brown, started out.

In the early 90s, Mory Kanté started seriously considering coming back to his homeland more often. Like the noble Malian Salif Keïta, the Guinea griot wanted to use his name and his financial means to help his own people, particularly the children. He dreamt of setting up a cultural complex in Conakry called Nongo Village, which would include a recording studio, a training center for jobs in the entertainment industry, a hotel and a griot museum. However, the crisis in Mali was not conductive such a development. On the other hand, he carried through another one of his numerous projects, by creating a philharmonic orchestra of about 30 koras, and as many harps, violins and flutes. This "Ensemble Traditionnel de Guinée", with its 130 musicians, performed in 1991 for the inauguration of the Grand Arch of La Defense in Paris.

Back home in Guinea, the Afro-dance star recorded his new album "Nongo Village" named after his studio. Among the 11 titles mixed in New York and Paris, "La Tension" was destined to win over the crowds and take over the dance halls in the same spirit as "Yéké Yéké". In this album, Mory Kanté reintegrated the balafon over guitars. The first single came out in September 93 and the album was released later in the Fall. Public acceptance was not overwhelming, and some reproached him for getting lost in a formula that lacked a sense of renewal.

In 1994, Mory Kanté received the "Golden Griot". On July 14, he sang in Deauville, a seaside resort in Normandy, France, then took off on a European, then Canadian tour.

After all these years of success, Mory Kanté has chosen to get back to a type of music more family oriented, more traditional. Maybe he has tired of his image as the "electric griot", nevertheless the Guinean is turning back towards his roots and toward a more authentic practice of his art and his profession.

Tatebola

In 1996, Mory Kanté released an album he had produced himself. In fact, the album "Tatebola" ("making allowances") is in line with the current techno music trend. But the rhythmic bases of techno are probably not so far from the ancestral percussion, and the musical inspirations of this disk are very close to the Mandingo origins. The artist produced the album himself in order to retain artistic control. The album was well received by the critics and a happy public rediscovered the griot on stage at the Paris Cigale in March 1997.

In July 1997, Mory Kanté participated in the Womad Festival (world music festival) in Reading, Great Britain, then on to Mauritius in August, and Austria in September. The flame of fame of these past years may be dimming somewhat, but "Yéké Yéké" remains an eternal calling card for the Guinean artist whose work continues to be of the highest quality.

The world music star kept up his touring activities over the following years, playing countless concerts on the international scene (although, much to French fans' disappointment, neglecting to stop off in France). Then, after a long silence on the recording front, 51-year-old Kante made a comeback in June 2001 with a new album entitled "Tamala" (The Traveller).

Tapping back into the Mandingo-influenced Afro-funk with which he had made his name 15 years earlier, Kante returned to using traditional instruments on "Tamala", abandoning the electronic influences which had crept into his work in recent years. Recorded in collaboration with UK producer, Paul Borg, "Tamala" mixed in hip hop and Gypsy influences and Kante also experimented with soul on his new album too, recording a duet with British r'n'b diva Shola Ama.

The world star took a break from his intensive tour schedule over the summer of 2001, playing only a handful of dates in Italy in August.

Fuelled by his legendary energy and commitment, Mory Kanté managed to be present on several fronts at once. At the ceremony marking World Food Day in 2001, the singer was appointed ambassador of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (the FAO). He made a memorable speech on this occasion, vowing that he would "work with people from different cultures and travel to different countries to encourage the development of exchange and mutual aid. We need to mobilise the entire world," he said, "in the fight against hunger and poverty." Mory Kanté continued his commitment to the UN organisation for a number of years, performing a concert in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, on behalf of the FAO in July 2003.

Meanwhile, Kanté also embarked upon another good cause, building local housing in Conakry. The project was greatly appreciated by the inhabitants of the Guinean capital who gratefully dubbed the neighbourhood "Mory Kantea." In 2002/2003, Mory Kanté performed extensively throughout Europe, appearing at many major music festivals. He ended up playing 120 concerts in over 25 different countries.

In 2003, Mory Kanté was invited to perform a special concert at the Robin Island prison in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela had been held in captivity. The singer readily accepted the invitation to pay tribute to the anti-apartheid cause which had been close to his heart for many years.

2004: "Sabou"

In 2004, the "electric griot" locked himself away in the studio for weeks on end, preparing a new album that took the music world completely by surprise. Going back to his roots, Kanté recorded a totally acoustic album entitled "Sabou" ("The Cause"). The album, which mixed the experience he'd gained in his international career - and the release of several Afro-pop albums - with Mandingo tradition, featured a dozen musicians and backing singers. Kanté's new album won rave reviews from the critics and enjoyed great success with the public, revealing as it did a totally different side to his work.

Mory Kanté went on to create an acoustic show based on his new album. His next tour introduced international audiences to a wide range of traditional instruments including the balafon, the bolon, the daro, the fe doun doun, the doun doumba, the flute, the n’goni, the djembé, the tama. These accompanied Kanté's famous kora and did much to promote traditional Mandingo melodies from West Africa worldwide.

In July 2006, he was invited by the American-Mexican guitarist Carlos Santana to play at the Montreux Jazz Festival along with Angélique Kidjo and Idrissa Diop. He was also asked to perform at the opening ceremony of the African games in Algeria the following year. What with the Montreal Jazz Festival in Canada, the gigantic Sziget in Hungary, and performances in the Netherlands, Mory Kante’s 2008 schedule was jam-packed. He could also be heard that year alongside Mokobe and Mohamed Lamine on African Tonik, a track cooked up for the dance floor scene.

He returned to Algeria in 2009 for the second Pan-Africain Festival and, faced with political upheavals in his homeland, he joined an artists’ collective. At the end of 2010 they recorded "Unité en Guinée/Tous ensemble" on the joint initiative of the Senegalese Didier Awadi and the Ivoirian Tiken Jah Fakoly, with participation from Guineans Takana Zion, Fode Baro, Sia Tolno, and others. The video clip was shot in Conakry in the studios of the Nongo Village complex that Mory Kante had finally managed to get up and running, a decade after the project began. His compatriot Sia Tolno recorded the album "My Life" in the studios and won the RFI Découvertes award in 2011.

In July that year, with "Yeké Yeké" and his emblematic Kora, he had the honour of closing the Nuit Africaine organised at the Stade de France close to Paris. The show featured some of the major faces of African music playing to an audience of 20,000 during a five-hour concert.

His album "La Guinéenne" was released in April 2012. The disk pays tribute to the women of his country and he presented it at the legendary New Morning in June 2012 with a fanfare of brass.

June 2012

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