Vieux Kanté

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Vieux Kanté
The Young Man's Harp
Stern's Music
Review by Bruce Miller

Listen "Saradia"


Frustratingly, this debut from blind kamalé n'goni master Kanté, will likely be the only record to come out under his name, as he died suddenly in 2005, and these recordings, made that year, languished for another 11 years. According to Banning Eyre's notes in the CD booklet, the logic was likely that, if he couldn't promote them in anyway, or benefit from their release, then there was perhaps little reason for them to come out. That they have come out now, instead of, say, 5 years ago, is also a bit of mystery, as it's clear they need to be heard. In fact, video clips of Kanté reveal an ability that was no doubt singular. He worked the instrument's full range, slapping it for effect, working his fingers up and down the strings to produce percussive flurries of notes. It's a shame this record doesn't include any of his solo playing, because in an ensemble, he can rely on his band for rhythm, coming in for solos and then dropping back, or out altogether while he sings, but left on his own to carry rhythm as well as lead licks, what he did was mesmerizing in the truest sense of the term.

His instrument, a direct descendant of the donson n'goni, which is not only larger, but relegated to hunter's ceremonies, was first introduced in the 1960s as a way to free players from formalities associated with the larger harp. It caught like wildfire in the Wassoulou region of SW Mali, and a young Kanté, blind since age 12, took to it instead of working the fields, copying patterns heard on the radio, and slowly adding strings to broaden his palette, eventually doubling the instrument's traditional 6-string design. And his music is a far cry from the minimalist plucking of the donson; his local club appearances surely made that clear.

One clip in particular finds him alone inside his house, playing a nearly 12-bar pattern, his hands up and down the harp, spitting out notes that sound nearly metallic, but never losing the groove. It was clear he was taking this instrument into some unchartered territory. In the years just prior to his death, he was leading a six piece band- trap kit, electric bass, hand percussionists, and vocalists- and it's this ensemble one hears here. Professionally recorded in a Bamako studio, the band is polished, and the recordings have the sheen that would have certainly thrust him onto stages in Europe and elsewhere, had he lived.


Yet, this kind of “ready for the world” polish can often detract from the music's essence, and by the time the band hits into a generic reggae groove with “Nafola,” that has indeed happened.

Listen "Nafola"


It's too bad, as the opening track, “Sans Commentaire,” with its minimal support, does such an amazing job of showing off its leader's ability. But regardless of how one hears production values, Kanté is also an excellent vocalist, and alongside Kabadjan Diakite, who is interviewed in the liner notes, the two weave spells with their harmonies.

Listen "Sans Commentaire"


Ultimately, for anyone who digs Malian music, or just likes a good groove, this record is an fantastic example of what this massive land-locked West African nation has to offer musically, and Kanté is finally getting some much deserved, if belated attention outside his home. - Bruce Miller


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