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Mory Kanté

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Kora player Mory Kanté expanded global awareness for the music of West Africa, perpetuated the musical traditions of the Mandinka people (an ethnic group spanning Mali, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast), and landed a global hit single in the process. Born in Guinea on March 29, 1950, Kanté grew up in a family of griots, a caste in the Mandinka society that carries and celebrates its stories and history through song and literature. His first instrument was the balafon, a regional variation on the marimba, but picked up the kora -- a 21-stringed instrument reminiscent of the harp and lute -- once his family sent him to study music and griot traditions in Mali.

In his early twenties, Kanté joined popular Malian outfit the Rail Band, and eventually became its frontman. The band was sponsored by the Malian government as a sort of cultural awareness program, and Kanté took the mission to heart for the rest of his life. With this objective in mind, Kanté broke through globally with his 1987 hit single, “Yé ké yé ké”. Kanté had moved to Paris in the early ‘80s and opened up his sound to outside influences, which resulted in his adaptation of a traditional Manding song through the lens of contemporary Western dance music. The song became a hit around the world, hitting Number One in Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland, Israel, and Spain. It would become the first million-selling single to originate from Africa, and propelled the album Akwaba Beach to similarly massive status. Its success also led to collaborations with Western artists Talking Heads and Carlos Santana.

Kanté’s de facto role as a cultural ambassador was made official when he was appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador by the United Nations in 2001. He also aided Doctors Without Borders, spoke out against apartheid, and worked to spread awareness about the ongoing practice of female genital mutilation. He continued to meld traditional West African sounds with music from around the world until his death on May 22, 2020.