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Obituary: Mory Kante (1950-2020) Obituary: Mory Kante (1950-2020)
by Joseph Gatt
2020-05-23 09:57:12
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Obituary: Mory Kanté (1950-2020)

The best one-hit-wonder that ever was, in my opinion.

Kora harp on his belly. A trance-like state. Back-up dancer dancing beautifully to the rhythm.

Mory Kanté's hit song Yé ké yé ké made me want to study the Dogon language it was sung in.

Little is known about Mory Kanté, except that he was born in Guinea, grown up in Mali where he was educated. Apparently he was destined to become an Islamic scholar, but became destined to become a respected musician.

konte01_400If a European ever throws an African-themed party, music is usually going to be either Youssou N'Dour, Ismael Lo or Mory Kanté. Few other African musicians have that level of international fame and respectability.

Mory Kanté was what sub-Saharan African music really needed when it comes to music. Africa is mostly about folk songs. Popular musicians tend to be “lazy” and play pre-recorded music, and often have trouble putting on an impressive show on the stage. I've been to African concerts, tried to discover their gems, but to my disappointment, most musicians tend to be exhausted after a song or two, despite lip-synching.

Mory Kanté was not one of those. Although yé ké yé ké was the song everyone came for, he tended to be comfortable on stage, enthused, almost in a trance-like state with his music.

Some would say Mory Kanté did not go to his crowd, his crowd came to him. That was both a blessing and a curse for Mory Kanté.

Mory Kanté had a group of hardcore international fans, and I was one of them. I was, and still am, such a big fan, that I would not have minded learning Dogon or Bambara, the languages he sang in, and I would have visited his native Guinea if given the opportunity. Either way, some of my colleagues did visit Guinea, and I listened intently to their stories of life in Conakry, the culture, the food, with Mory Kanté in mind.

Yé ké yé ké is such a powerful song to me, that I tried memorizing the lyrics (but failed) and often thought that if I ever was invited to a karaoke, that's the song I'd go for (although I would practice a bit before singing it).

Of course, being a Mory Kanté fan, I dug up everything I could about him on YouTube. Not a man of interviews, not a man of declarations. Not a man who will share the story of his life with you. A man of music. And there are many versions of yé ké yé ké, including some great duets. And when the song was performed at festivals in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the crowd went wild.

Mory Kanté's reluctance to engage in public relations was perhaps what limited his record sales and his popularity; in an age where record labels will harass you if you refuse to play the public relations game and “promote” your album.

I love music. Music is always in the eye of the beholder, but to me few songs embody the kind of perfection yé ké yé ké embodied. Perfect from start to finish. Not a single bad note. Not a single moment of the song you want to skip. And when the song ends, you want to hear it again. All that without understanding a single word being said.

Unfortunately, Mory Kanté could have been a lot bigger.

African music has a long way to go. African culture is mostly tribal, and the tribes tend to believe that whatever money is being made should be shared with the tribe, that what's yours is the tribes'.

The African music scene also lacks musicians with enough motivation to endure lasting careers, but then so does Europe and North America.

More importantly, African musicians tend to discourage their talents from interacting with the Europeans on talk shows, often because of the belief that any declaration or statement reflects the tribe, not the individual. So this reluctance of musicians to give interviews and be themselves while promoting the album makes for African music to be mostly appreciated “underground.”

Finally, African dictatorships don't want world-renowned musicians who could issue statements in the international media that would go contrary to the dictator's “revolutionary spirit.”

Anyway rest in peace Mory Kanté. You were big. You were huge. And you were truly an international star that touched the hearts of hundreds of millions of music lovers on six continents. 

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