There’s never a bad time for a good story. Not a make-believe tale, as a child would spin during a stormy August afternoon tea party with her dolls. Not scary, like so many of the excuses politicians make when caught in potentially deadly lies.
No, a good story, one rooted in tradition and sharing. A story, relating family history or cultural lore. A story, tingling the ends of your hair, thrilling the soul or breaking your unsuspecting heart.
Mory Kanté knows a good story can be spoken—as the griots of his ancestors and contemporaries of his native Guinea. Or sung, as he has done for lo these 20 some-odd years. And he’s at it again.
But why the shift from electric kora, Euro-friendly dance beats and funk-inspired chords to acoustic sounds? Because Kanté’s newest collection of original tunes, Sabou (“Cause”), has brought him home—to Guinea, where his father taught him the oral traditions of his family. To Mali, where he learned the art of singing from an aunt while growing more confident on guitar and balafon, then, later with Bamako musicians, adding kora playing to his list of skills. To Abidjan, where he found ready acceptance of his band, comprising musicians on traditional West African instruments playing Western pop and Afro-Cuban music. Back to his first days in Paris, where he recorded his first hit album, 1984’s Mory Kanté a Paris, and an early version of his Afropop hit “Yéké Yéké.”
Given his success—and his unwitting role in paving the way for other African musicians to work and record (including Youssou N’Dour, Salif Keita and Cesaria Evora)—Kanté felt compelled to stop and take stock. The result: Sabou, Kanté’s loving tribute to his past. Kanté dispenses with the slick, sometimes overly fussy production of his ’90s output, leaving his straightforward melodies simply adorned and allowing his able chorus (Mariamagbe Mama Keita, Hadja Maningbe Kouyate, Onane Lydie “Olyza” Zamati) to shine. You won’t find false sentiment and rose-colored nostalgia here. The singer/multi-instrumentalist allows his music to carry the messages of such songs as “Möko” (“Gratitude and thanks must always follow a favor rendered,” writes Kanté) and “Loniya (“Knowledge”), resisting the urge to hide behind well-executed gimmicks. The beat hasn’t died, though, so dancing to songs like “Désolé (“Sorry”), “Mama” and “”Nafiya” (“Bad People”) is expected and encouraged.
Sabou is more than a look back, though. On it are Kanté’s observations of a challenging present (“Djou,” or “The Enemy,” speaks directly to the worldwide epidemic of hunger resulting from displacement and war) and a promising future (Kanté dedicates “Mama” to his daughter, living in the U.S.; the title track looks to the hope of the African continent, despite hardships and political setbacks; “Biriya,” or “The Transition of Adulthood,” chronicles the Mande rite of passage of boys into adulthood). He writes of love and commitment on “Diananka” (“What I Love”), advocating trust and honor over deception and jealousy, and promotes respect despite differences on “Kènkan” (“The Good Intentions We Have”).
Most important, however, is that Sabou is a statement of joy. It’s clear in “Kènkan,” where Kanté’s kora interlaces with Mohamed Alpha Camara’s congas and Babagallé Kanté’s playfully staccato African flute. It’s evident in “Mama”: Kanté’s pride in his daughter and the women in his life informs every note; he plays almost every instrument here, but he leaves enough room for Adama Condé’s balafon solo, Camara’s anchoring congas and the cheery chorus. On “Biriya,” Kanté leads the celebration with soaring vocals, and the chorus, African flute, balafons, doun douns, cloches and djembes happily follow. You can almost picture a West African village alive with activity and anticipation, then the ensuing party, as the men and women dance in<