29 March 1950, Albadania, Guinea. One of the great preservers and modernizers of the traditional music of west Africas Mandinka people, Kanté also achieved major recognition in Europe in the 80s, where from his Paris base he fused the ancient sounds of the kora (west African harp) with black American dance music.
Kanté was born into a family of famous griots (musician-historians who combine entertainment with tribal history and lore), and at the age of 15, he was sent to Bamako, Mali to stay with his aunt and learn both the kora technique and the detailed tribal history that he would need if he was to become a professional griot. In 1971 he joined the Rail Band, then Malis leading group, who for years were resident at the citys Station Hotel, where they entertained both the residents of Bamako and travellers who had completed the long train journey from Dakar in Senegal. During his seven years as guitarist and balafonist with the band, he recorded the celebrated album LExil De Soundjata, Le Fondateur De LEmpire Mandingue, an epic history of the reign of the Malian king and empire builder, Soundjata. As the second singer, he was widely perceived to be chief rival of Salif Keita during his time in the Rail Band, and this led directly to Keitas decision to join the Ambassadors.
In 1977, now proficient on the cora (a large harp/lute) and anxious to broaden his musical horizons, and expand his audience, Kanté left Bamako for the more prosperous and populous city of Abidjan in neighbouring Cote DIvoire, where he formed a 35-piece band, Les Milieus Branches, and began introducing elements of black American dance music into his arrangements. He was assisted in these early experiments by the producer Abdouaye Soumare, who had briefly worked with Stevie Wonder in the USA. With Soumare, Kanté recorded the album Courougnégné, a blueprint for his and other Mandinka musicians cross-cultural fusions later in the decade. The album was a huge success in Mali, Senegal and Cote DIvoire, and also amongst the West African expatriate community in Paris. Encouraged by the French sales, Kanté moved to Paris with a slimmed-down version of Les Milieus Branches, and continued the stylistic innovations set out on Courougnégné. In 1984, he released the superb À Paris, which spread his name beyond France and Francophone West Africa to the UK and USA. In 1985, he collaborated with other African musicians on the Tam Tam Pour LEthiopie project (a pan-African fundraising effort for Ethiopia, based on the Band Aid principle).
Kantés biggest success to date came in 1988, when his single, Ye Ke Ye Ke, an inspired fusion of Mandinka kora and black American house music, enjoyed major chart success throughout Europe and West Africa. In 1990, the similarly inspired and sublime album Touma further developed this direction, including input from South African guitarist, and Paul Simon collaborator, Ray Chipika Phiri, plus Carlos Santana. The following year he presented his Symphony of Guinea with 130 griot musicians for the inaugural ceremony of the Grande Arche de la Défence in Paris. He also set about creating Nongo Village, a musical township for the promotion of Mande culture, in the Conakry region of his homeland. In 2000 a remixed version of Ye Ke Ye Ke was featured in The Beach, and the following year Kanté duetted with UK singer Shola Ama on his new studio recording, Tamala (Le Voyageur).
Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.