Mory Kanté, of Guinea, was the first African singer ever to place a song at No. 1 on the European pop charts. His 1987 hit “Yeke Yeke” made the top five in seven countries and has been covered in a dozen languages. The song blew open the doors for a whole new movement in African popular music — strongly rooted in tradition and sung in an African tongue, yet savvy and polished enough in its production to be heard as a dance track with pop appeal. They called him the Ambassador and the Electro-Griot, a reference to his signature instrument, the electric Manding kora, a 21-string harp used by historian bards in West Africa. In fact, Kanté played a number of instruments, including guitar, but it was his gale-force, keening voice and his superior skills as an arranger that made him impossible to ignore. Kanté died on May 22 in Guinea (apparently not from Covid-19). He was just 70, but he leaves behind a legacy few musicians can rival.
Without a doubt, the success of Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland helped pave the way for African music on the world stage. But it took brilliant African artists like Kanté to realize the dream. In the early ’70s, Kanté joined the legendary Rail Band, of Bamako, Mali, one of the laboratories in which African traditional music was forged into modern dance sounds. Kanté moved on to careers in Ivory Coast and France, releasing some 12 studio albums and performing widely. Kanté was also a crucial player in the commercial rise of Afropop in the late ’80s and early ’90s — but again, he wasn’t alone. Here are five songs, including Kanté’s, that changed the fate of African music forever, beginning a history that carries on today in the hands of megastars from Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa and elsewhere.
With its prominent cowbell and the buoyant, breezy swing of South African jazz, “Grazing in the Grass” seemed to come out of nowhere on the late-’60s pop charts. (In the U.S., it hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100.) The track almost didn’t happen. It was created to fill out Masekela’s debut album, and was based on a Zambian novelty song the trumpeter recalled. In retrospect, the track marked an early ripple in a coming tsunami of African music in the international market. Without words, “Grazing” presented an Africanized mirror image of American pop-jazz, and became a signature tune for the future world-music and jazz titan.
Peter Gabriel incorporated a growing fascination with global music on his fifth solo album, So. On the song “In Your Eyes,” he showcased Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour, already a star at home but virtually unknown elsewhere. Gabriel’s lyrics thoughtfully interplay ideas of romantic and religious love; N’Dour’s vocal intervention in the latter part of the song is simply traditional praise singing. But it was that unforgettable voice that made the magic and introduced N’Dour to a ready Western audience. The song went on to become a Gold single for Gabriel, and N’Dour went on to be dubbed “African Musician of the 20th Century” by Folk Roots magazine.
The noble-born albino singer Salif Keita, of Mali, had travelled a long, hard road before entering a Paris studio to record his landmark album, Soro. Marginalized by his albinism, Keita had turned to music in defiance of Malian tradition: nobles should be sung to, not sing themselves. Keita had far-reaching musical tastes that spanned the deepest traditions and the mainstream rock and pop hits of the day. Under the direction of producer Ibrahima Sylla, Keita and his musicians rewrote the rules of African pop, making an album that is unabashedly progressive and experimental, but also spiked with arresting traditional vocals by one of Africa’s most iconic modern singers.
The piece itself is adapted from a traditional love song. Kanté had already recorded a version on an earlier album, but it was on 1987’s Akwaba Beach that he pulled out the stops. A pumping techno beat, racing kora riffs, sharp keyboard accents and fat percussion set up a vocal that raises the hair on the back of one’s neck. The mood is fierce and defiant, but that vocal hook is as catchy as they come. It would be another generation before another African singer would gain this level of mainstream attention in France. But the game was now on. Reflecting back on “Yeke Yeke,” Kanté once told an interviewer, “I can’t say I was the first to use kora with a band, but I was first to do something this big.”