Mory Kante, a Guinean singer, kora player and bandleader who built a worldwide audience for music rooted in West Africa, died Friday in Conakry, Guinea. He was 70.
Kante’s manager, Juan Yriat, said he died in his sleep after suffering chest pains earlier in the day. No official cause of death has been announced.
Kante came from a family of griots, the dynastic West African musicians whose songs carry news and chronicle history. Steeped in those traditions, he electrified the kora, the traditional griot’s harp, and he fused African music with styles and instruments from Western pop. “God gave me this ability to modernize traditional instruments,” he told the website Pan African Music in 2017.
Kante’s 1987 single “Ye Ke Ye Ke” was a hit, first in Africa and then across Europe. It became the first African single to sell more than 1 million copies and has been licensed frequently for commercials and film soundtracks. It was also reworked by other musicians into German techno, Bollywood film music and Chinese Cantopop.
Although some of Kante’s music was criticized as being too slick and internationalized, his songs gave many Western listeners an accessible introduction to African music. After Kante’s death, the president of Guinea, Alpha Conde, wrote on Twitter that “African culture is in mourning.”
Mory Kante was born March 29, 1950, in Albadarya, a small town near Kissidougou in southeastern Guinea. His father, Djeli Fode Kante, who was from Guinea, had 38 children with a number of women. His mother, Fatoumata Kamissoko, was from Mali. Both of Kante’s parents were griots.
Mory absorbed the singing of his parents and learned to play balafon (a West African marimba) as a child. His family sent him to Mali to study the kora and other griot traditions.
As a teenager in the 1960s he played in pop bands in Bamako, the capital of Mali, including one named the Apollos in honor of the United States space program. In 1971 he joined the Rail Band, playing guitar and balafon, and he took over as lead singer when Salif Keita — who would also become a world-music luminary — quit to start his own band.
The Rail Band was initially sponsored by Mali’s ministry of information and performed in residence at Bamako’s train-station hotel, the Buffet Hotel de la Gare. It was devoted to affirming Malian traditions by melding them with pop, particularly the Afro Cuban music that had swept Africa. Kante transformed a traditional instrument by installing electronics in his vintage kora.
He stayed with the Rail Band until 1979, then moved to Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast, to start his own group, which became the house band at a popular restaurant and greeted musicians from abroad — Barry White was one — with Africanized versions of their hits. Those shows led to Kante’s first album as a leader (with his name spelled “Mori Kant”), recorded in Los Los Angeles for a small American label, Eboni; it made little impact.
Kante moved to Paris in the early 1980s and determinedly globalized his music. He added electronic sounds and programming and simplified some of the intricacies of African rhythm. But he maintained the urgency of griot vocal style, placed the kora and balafon upfront and, most often, sang in Mandinka, a West African language.
Kante’s 1987 album, “Akwaba Beach,” was recorded with African and European musicians. The album, for which he wrote the arrangements, opened with “Ye Ke Ye Ke,” a version of a traditional Manding song for millet harvesting that bounced delicate kora picking and a balafon riff against brisk drums, a wriggling synthesizer line and a jabbing horn section.
That song was aggressively catchy and contemporary, and it found its way to dance clubs and radio playlists across Africa and Europe. Ever since its release, “Ye Ke Ye Ke” has been repeatedly remixed, covered and licensed to accompany, among other things, a Turkish potato-chip commercial and a club scene with Leonardo DiCaprio in the 2000 film “The Beach.”
Along with singers and bandleaders like Salif Keita from Mali, King Sunny Ade from Nigeria and Youssou N’Dour from Senegal, Kante both spurred and benefited from growing attention to African music in the 1980s and ’90s, when marketing terms like Afropop and worldbeat gained traction.
Sometimes promoted as “the electronic griot,” he toured internationally and collaborated with musicians including Talking Heads — he contributed kora to their 1988 album, “Naked” — and Carlos Santana, who played guitar on Kante’s 1990 album, “Touma.”
In the early 2000s Kante moved back to Guinea. After his electronics-laced albums of the 1990s, he turned increasingly toward acoustic instruments on his most recent albums, notably “Sabou” (2004). He wrote an autobiographical children’s book, “Cocorico! Balade d’un Griot,” about growing up in Manding culture, releasing it as an audiobook with a collection of new songs for children.
His last studio album, “La Guinéenne” (2012), celebrated African women. In 2014 he joined Salif Keita, Amadou & Mariam, Oumou Sangare and other West African musicians to record “Africa Stop Ebola,” a benefit single for Doctors Without Borders. He continued to perform in Africa and Europe.
Kante interspersed his music career with efforts to encourage development in Africa. He became an ambassador for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and he was active in efforts to end female genital mutilation. He also built a cultural center in Nongo, near Conakry, including an auditorium and recording studios.
He is survived by his wife, Sira, and by numerous children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and siblings.
His death brought tributes from fellow musicians like N’Dour, who called him “a baobab of African culture,” referring to the African trees with massive, gnarled trunks that often survive for centuries. Kante himself saw his cultural role clearly but modestly. In 2017, as he was about to receive a lifetime achievement award, the SACEM World Music Prize, he said, “I participated in the emancipation of African music as part of universal music.”