Heritage and birth
Mory Kante inherited the griot tradition from the « jalis » of Mande. At its height during the reign of Sundiata Keita in the XIIIth century, the African empire of Mande
stretched from the Atlantic coast to the region of Gao. Mory began his musical education even before his birth on March 29th 1950 at Albadania near Kissidougou in the forestland of Guinea. His mother, Fatouma Kamissoko, communicated with him through music when he was still in her womb…
Fatouma is of Malian origin. Her father, the Jali Mory Sanda Kamissoko, known as “Sanda” (the word, the proverb and the verb), was a spiritual leader for the griots in the regions of Kouranko and Sankaran in Guinea. The old man personally baptised the child and passed on to him his own name. The song “Alamina Badoubaden” from the new album (a beautiful tune recorded live by an ensemble that included some of the best griots living in France) is a tribute paid by the grandson to the renowned grandfather.
1950-64 – The griot child
Little Mory started his traditional education with his father, El Hadj Djelifode, leader of the griots of Kissidougou, who lived to the age of 109… Mory was one of the youngest of his thirty-eight children. He went to a French school and learned to play the balafon, the Kante family’s emblematic instrument. The Jalis say that Sumaworo Kante, the king of Sosso, used to possess a very powerful “djo”, the “Sosso Bala”, a balafon (or rather a bala as the word balafon refers to the bala player) kept in a secret ritual hut.
According to the legend he gave this balafon to his griot saying these words: “Bala Fasseke Kouyate”. Mory sings that story magnificently in “Exil of Sundiata”, an epic 25 minutes piece recorded in 1975 at the time when he was part of the Bamako Rail Band. “Every balafon is tuned with that one. That balafon exists and there still is a place for it today”, Mory explains. It’s one of the first enchanted instruments. But it is wrong to say that Sumaworo Kante’s balafon was a fetish. It’s a means of communication between what people can see and listen to and what people can neither see nor listen to. The instrument makes possible cosmic communication, a communication of power.”
1965-70 – First initiatory journeys
The young griot’s initiation began at the age of 15. Mory was sent to Bamako, the capital of Mali, to live with his aunt, the griot Manamba Kamissoko (one of the singers from the Mali National Instrumental Ensemble) maried to the twins Fouceny and Lanssana Diabate. For several years, across the Mande, the young boy undertook the initiatory journeys necessary to become a griot: a succession of difficult ordeals (that were not solely musical) to complete his education.
Back in town Mory had time to enthusiastically explore the different styles of music pouring in from the rest of the world: chachacha and mambo from Cuba, rumba from the Congo, soul from America, pop from England, yéyé’s from France … Mory Kante adored the guitar and managed extremely well as balafonist, guitarist and singer for the Apollos, a group that performed during wedding festivities. With this reference to James Brown’s celebrated “Live at the Apollo ” recording, Mory already indicated a preference for the funky music that he would continue to draw upon for inspiration,
Journeys with the Rail Band
Mory was spotted by Tidiane Kone, the saxophonist and conductor of the The Rail Band that had been formed in 1969 in order to liven up the highly estimated Buffet de la Gare of Bamako. Mory joined the group in 1971 as guitarist and balafonist. The singer at that time was Salif Keïta. In 1973 when the latter left to join the rival group, the Ambassadors, Mory replaced him on the microphone. He tried himself out on a large variety of styles and notably excelled in the pure funk music inspired by James Brown, such as “Moko Jolo” (recorded in 1974 with the Rail Band and revived in 1993 on his album Nongo Village) and in the Mande-style Afrobeat works like “Dugu Kamleba” (1974), dedicated to Fela.
In Bamako Mory discovered the Cora, a large harp-lute that comes from the region of Gabu through which the Gambie River flows. He learned to master the instrument without taking any lessons. His efforts were awarded the day in 1974 when the Malian music and spiritual master, Batrou Sekou Kouyate, gave him the Cora, which accompanies him on all the stages; he performs on throughout the world. Starting in 1975, the already famous Rail Band started to tour in all West Africa. In 1976 Mory was awarded the “Voix d’Or” (golden voice) trophy in Nigeria. The following year he decided to complete his training as a Griot by going to see the masters of the tradition in the major historical sites in Mande.
The Abidjan Journey
After leaving the Rail Band, Mory Kante settled in Abidjan in 1978. It was there that he developed what was going to become the mark of originality in his music and one of the keys to his success. “ I opted for doing research on the sounds of traditional African instruments: the balafon, the violin, the bolon and especially the Cora”, Mory recounts. “At a time when all orchestras were equipping themselves with modern instruments (guitars, keyboards…) I thought it was a shame to leave aside all these treasures.”
With a small traditional ensemble (balafon, djembe, 5 stringed bolon), Mory Kante (cora and vocals) provided the musical entertainment at the Climbier, which at the time was a renowned club in Abidjan. International stars such as Barry White and Johnny Pacheco also performed there. Mory’s acoustic arrangements for international hits surprised and seduced the director of the American label Ebony Records, Gerard Chess, who decided to produce his first record, “Courougnegne”, in 1981.
The artist’s reputation was beginning to spread throughout Africa. It gained a new dimension in 1982 when he directed the Mande ballet (composed of 75 traditional and modern artists) on the stage of the French cultural center in Abidjan. A scaled-down version of this creation was part of the legendary show that French singer Jacques Higelin presented in the Bercy stadium-concert hall in Paris in the fall of 1985.
1984-89 - The Paris journey
Mory Kante came to France in 1984. Finding a place in the sun in the city of lights was not a simple matter- especially without a residence permit… A quasi-traditional version of “Yeke Yeke” was presented on his album “Mory Kante in Paris” which was a “façon-façon” (“home-made style”) recording. Two years after having practically started out again from scratch, Mory’s enormous talent had won him a place in the sun. The concerts that he gave with his electric cora received unanimous praise from the critics.
In 1985 he contributed to the musical track of the French film “Black mic mac”. He was also one of 30 African artists in Paris who took part in the “Tam Tam for Ethiopia” adventure organised by Manu Dibango. It was on that occasion that he met Philippe Constantin, then one of the foremost talent discoverers for the young musical scene in France. Convinced of Mory’s potential, Philippe offered him a contract for an album in 1986 when he was handed over the reins of Barclay Productions.
The album “10 cola nuts”, co-produced by the American pianist Davis Sancious, was hailed by the critics and nominated for the French “Victoires de la Musique” in 1986. The touring rhythm accelerated: Europe, North Africa, Mali, Senegal, the USA… Mory Kante was able to find an ideal balance in crossover music and the western public was ready to welcome these sounds, which opened up new horizons for it.
“Yeke Yeke” was re-recorded in a shorter version (faster, electric, and more conducive to dancing) for the album “Akwaba Beach” in 1987. The song’s dazzling success took everyone by surprise. The sales soared to more then a million singles and more than half a million albums and its listing on the hit parades around the world multiplied. When “Yeke Yeke” reached the top spot on the Paneuropean charts in Billboard magazine (USA) in 1988, the griot from Kissidougou had succeeded in giving African music the place it rightfully deserves.
Planetary journeys and a return to the source
In 1990, on the 14th of July (French Bastille Day), Mory Kante, former illegal alien, represents France alongside Khaled on a huge stage in the heart of Central Park in front of tens of thousands of New Yorkers. And a few months later, on the occasion of the “Gala de la Francophonie”, he had the joy of treading on the stage of the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem. The album “Touma” (the moment) which was released that year, and was produced by Nick Patrick (who had produced the previous one) was a golden record in France.
The following year, for the inaugural ceremony for the Grande Arche de la Défence in Paris, Mory Kante was asked to present his Symphony of Guinea, to be interpreted by 130 griot musicians, both male and female traditional singers. This event foreshadows the project that Mory, than 41 years old, dreamed about in secret: the creation in Africa of an important musical City for the promotion of the Mande culture. He had already given it a name: Nongo Village.
To start out, Mory built his studio on land that he had acquired in the vicinity of Conakry. He recorded there the basic part of his new album for Barclay “Nongo Village”, that was to be released at the end of 1993. The next year he toured both in Europe and in Canada. He was also awarded the “Griot d’Or” in Paris and attributed the “Prix Kilimandjaro” by Africa n°1 (the “number one” Franco-African radio station in France). But Mory Kante is mostly preoccupied by the realisation of his project, which was extremely ambitious within the context of the Guinean economy.
1996-2001 - The traveller’s endurance
Mory regains his artistic independence and his autonomy as a producer in order to assure the realisation of his album “Tatebola”, released in 1996. The title song was chosen by Canal France International as the signature tune for the Mundial 98. The musical tours continued across the world, notably with Womad, while the City project starts to take form in Conakry, in a neighborhood that the population was soon to baptise “Mory Kantea”.
“I want to help to industrialise African music and culture through this project”, explains the singer. “It will include a major music school where traditional instruments will be taught, and where training programs will be offered in related fields; there will be a show business agency, three recording studios, and an audiovisual studio where artistic and cultural programs can be created. The tourist sector will offer a hotel, equipped with a club and a theater. In addition, accommodations will be available for the crews that will come to work in the recording studios.
In 2000, Leonardo Di Caprio called upon Mory Kante for the musical track of his film,“The Beach”, which includes a remix of “Yeke Yeke”. In December he was invited to the Vatican to participate in the festivities of the pope’s jubilee. Following this interesting experience for a Muslim, Mory Kante undertook the recording of his new album, “Tamala” (The traveler), which was finished at the beginning of April 2001.
On World Food Day, October 16th, 2001 Mory Kante was appointed F.A.O. (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) Ambassador to help in the mission to Fight Hunger to Reduce Poverty worldwide.
In November 2001 Mory Kante was awared the Pan African Broadcast Heritage & Achievement Awards (PABHA) “Best Male Performer” award.