He claims that making one of the biggest hits of recent times, ‘Yéké Yéké’, credited with blowing open the ethnic dance fusion flood gates, was the kind of happy accident that only the major record labels could conspire to do. All that is in the past though as we catch up with Mory Kante, modern-day griot
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You are a griot. Can you explain what that means and how it informs your music and what you do?
Mory Kanté: The word griot comes from the Mandingue word ‘djeli’. Djeli is the blood which runs in our veins, an essential and omniscient part of us, and the griots are the eyes, the ears and the mouth of their community. Today being a griot means communicating truths, and building cultural bridges between Africa and the rest of the world. Also my role of FAO ambassador forms part of this role — to fight against the hunger that affects 800 000 people in the world
“I never intended to make a world hit with ‘Yéké Yéké’. More to the point, if someone had said that to me before I recorded it, I would have laughed!”
You were born into a distinguished musical family but even by their standards you were a prodigy. How did they encourage your musical growth?
Mory Kanté: I was raised in the traditional manner in a family of griots. From a very early age I was exposed to music and expected to learn and participate. At the age of three I was already playing on instruments around the house. By the time I was seven I was proficient enough on the balafon to be considered the balafonist of my village. They would call on me to play at ceremonies around the area. When I was 15 they sent me to Mali to finish my learning to become a griot.
In the Seventies you were part of the famous Rail Band, what was that like? How much of the rumoured rivalry with Salif Keita was real?
Mory Kanté: The Rail Band was home to many future great artists like Salif Keita. There really was no rivalry between us as the truth is I was playing the balafon and the guitar while he was singing. I only sung with the group when he was not there and I became the lead singer only after he had left. My times with the Rail Band were some of the most important in my career – it was here that I was exposed to western music and artists such as James Brown and others for the first time.
When you made Yeké Yeké, were you intending to make a specifically commercially successful record? What positive and negative effects did the amazing success of this record have on you personally and as a musician?
Mory Kanté: I never intended to make a world hit with ‘Yéké Yéké’. More to the point, if someone had said that to me before I recorded it, I would have laughed! The people with that kind of attitude are the majors. This song has only ever had a positive effect for me. It enabled me to live in between Europe and Africa and to continue making more albums. However, this period of my life is over and today my new album is completely acoustic.
When you hear old records of yours, from which period do you think they still sound the best?
Mory Kanté: I particularly like 10 Cola Nuts and think it’s aged well
Your latest album, Sabou, could be seen as a back-to-your-roots record, is that how you see it?
Mory Kanté: It is also an artistic project that I prepared hard for. Sabou does use traditional instruments but it also has a sound which is easily accessible to everyone
How do you think African audiences are reacting to these records?
Mory Kanté: My African public is really enthusiastic. The artists who were performing there ten or fifteen years ago have changed, like me. This is a natural evolution — towards maturity when you often return to your roots.
As you look around the musical scenes in Africa and in the West what do you see that gives you the most hope and pleasure?
I’m always touched by the Western music scene. In spite of the difference of languages, the audiences often sing along in my concerts in Mandingue. It’s very exciting to be able to communicate with thousands of people like this. In Africa there is a real musical expansion and I have high hopes for the rising generation.
For Mory Kante video and audio clips visit the Mory Kante site
His latest album Sabou is out now.
–Photography by Youri Lenquette–
Mory is playing Wychwood Festival this June in England