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Tama - Mory Kanté

I was very sad to hear of the death on May 22nd of Guinean kora player and singer Mory Kanté. Like many, I became an enthusiast of "world music" in the late 80's, specifically through African acts like the Bhundu Boys, the Four Brothers, Lovemore Majaivana, Somo Somo and other bands playing jit or highlife. While I bought records by all of these, I soon found out that it was almost impossible to capture the excitement and energy of their live performances on recordings: while live you couldn't resist dancing, on vinyl it was merely good background music for novel reading. The breakthrough moment that showed that modern African music wasn't just a passing dance fad or an exotic anachronism was when I heard Mory Kanté's 1987 album "Akwaba Beach". Incorporating modern recording techniques and with an ear for the latest Western dance music, Mory Kanté used primary African rhythms and instruments to create a modern Afrikan sound that could hold its own against the best from the west. For my money, Alkwaba Beach has more classic song intros than any other album. All 8 tracks captivate the soul even before the singing starts - perhaps it's just as well as I don't understand the words - and Kanté's kora, so unobtrusive yet so vital and melodic, makes up for any translation problems.

The kora is a 21 string instrument from West Africa; the art of kora playing was handed down from one generation to the next within griot families over the centuries and is a part of the griot tradition. A griot is a teller of traditional stories through music or through poetry, an essential figure in the preservation of West African heritage - very much in the mode of Homer or the Provencal poets.

Kanté's father was from a Guinean griot family and his mother was a singer from a Malian griot family so right from the start he was an incarnate fusion of the traditions of the two neighbouring countries. The further addition of western musical influences to give musical context for his origins without drowning them out was perfected in "Akwaba Beach", which on its release became the best selling African LP of all time, helped not a little by its single release, the international hit "Yé ké yé ké".

When, in 1988, I went to Stern's record shop in Warren Street and exited with "Akwaba Beach" under my arm, I felt an excitement that I hadn't experienced since leaving HMV in Oxford Street nineteen years earlier with the Who's "Tommy".

Somehow I've always known that Tama is a girl's name and that this is a love song, but who cares when the music is as delicious as this? The classic intro, with Kuo Joseph's syncopated bongos, the marching handclap, the earthy musing man hum and the female singers chirping like a fresh memory, explodes into a hot dance mix of electronic drumming and funky brass topped by Kanté's urgent vocal.

It goes up ten notches up when the kora enters 3 minutes 20 seconds in. If you didn't know who Mory Kanté's was, you do now: that last bit's all the introduction you need. A true great.

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