Mory Kanté, griot of world music, will no longer sing “Yé Ké Yé Ké” – RFI Musique

Mory Kanté, during the 2017 SACEM Grand Prix ceremony.

© RFI / Edmond Sadaka

Guinean artist Mory Kanté died at the age of 70 on May 22 in a hospital in Conakry, following illness. The interpreter of the world tube Yé Ké Yé Ké has made the Mandingo sounds travel far beyond the African continent, thus participating in the advent of world music.

In four syllables, Mory Kanté brought African music into another dimension. With Yé Ké Yé Ké, published in 1987, the doors of international commercial success suddenly opened at a point unprecedented for an artist of the continent. Through this planetary hit which enabled him to win a Victoire de la musique in France for his album Akwaba Beach, the Guinean singer also carried a different image of Africa, breaking with certain stereotypes: a sound color which corresponded to the productions of his time, a modern sound drawn from an old instrument, which could easily symbolize the cultures of West Africa. The kora, this half calabash surmounted by a long handle on which 21 strings are positioned, was for Mory Kanté a link between his original land and the rest of the world.

The very large family – he would be the 38th child of siblings! – in which he was born in 1950, in a village in central Guinea, then a French colony, is that of a famous griot. “It could only be my vocation”, he confided recently to RFI, stressing the hereditary nature of this social role in Mandingo society.

The order of things is not, however, immutable and the student at the Bamako Institute of the Arts, the city to which he was sent from the age of seven, will prove it by joining the formation of the Rail Band where illustrates the young Salif Keita, whose repertoire seeks to transpose the Western influence of local bases. The coexistence of their respective talents will feed a posteriori number of rumors about possible rivalries …

But it was above all by opting for the kora, when it was intended for the emblematic balafon of griots, that Mory Kanté became emancipated. “She is my first wife”, he liked to recall, referring to the copy that Batourou Sékou Kouyaté had bequeathed to him. “Let her feed you and feed your children and grandchildren”, the prominent member of the National Orchestra of Mali had told him. He is the first to electrify this instrument, with which he obviously performed at the end of the African Night organized at the Stade de France in front of 80,000 people in 2011. “Even though I was called a defiler, my wish was granted because it is played in many modern orchestras”, welcomed the one nicknamed since then the “electric griot”.

First solo album

This research phase took place during these years in Abidjan, at the turn of the 1980s, when the Ivorian economic capital became a major center for the continent’s music industry and attracted artists from neighboring countries. However, it was in Togo that he designed his first album in 1981 (re-recorded in Paris in 1993), in the studio of the Togolese Disc Office, which was then the most sophisticated of the entire sub-region.

A first version of Yé Ké Yé Ké appears three years later on vinyl Mory Kanté in Paris. At that time, the French capital in turn became in the middle of the decade a central element in the development of the French-speaking African music scene and the songs of the Guinean feed on this diversity, since we find alongside it both the Cameroonian Hilaire Penda as Ivorian Rato Venance from the Bozambo group.

Mory Kanté quickly gained visibility: a new album, Ten Cola Nuts, produced by a musician from Bruce Springsteen; then the French singer Jacques Higelin, at the height of his notoriety, had him play at the start of his concerts in Bercy in front of 16,000 people. In the wake of the tidal wave caused by Yé Ké Yé Ké, prestigious collaborations will follow: with Carlos Santana on the album Toma, or with a group of 130 musicians in Paris during the inauguration of the Grande Arche in La Défense.

Construction of a cultural complex

If his subsequent projects have less impact, the artist wants to keep the same avant-garde approach, between Afro-dance and techno, before making a homecoming at the start of the millennium with Sabou, an acoustic album. In Conakry, he built a cultural complex, which brings together welcome infrastructure for local musicians. When he’s not in France or on tour around the world where we keep asking him regularly, he goes there to give his advice. “Free”, he specified.

The Guinean, his last album dated released in 2012, was developed there at length, with the care that characterizes the arrangements so loved by the singer. Solicited by the “maestro” Boncana Maiga who had put Las Maravillas of Mali back on his feet in 2018, he had agreed to take part in this Afro-Cuban adventure for a few concerts, before delivering in 2019 what is today a testament: a book-disc titled Cock-a-doodle Doo ! Ride of a griot, awarded by the Charles-Cros Academy, in which Mory Kanté describes an African childhood that could be his own. Transmit, the key word of griots, whether or not electric.

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