Mory Kante: Akwaba Beach

The fifth in the series revisiting classic albums and old favourites.

The singer and kora player Mory Kante from Guinea was the first African musician I listened to, through the discovery of his album Akwaba Beach 25 years ago. This led me to West African music in general and to musicians such as Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare, Youssou N’Dour, Cheikh Lo, Baaba Maal and others. Kante’s album Akwaba Beach was a major European success following the release of a hit single ‘Yeke Yeke’ – a love song from Guinea which in Kante’s hands typifies the Afro-beat dance style of the times. ‘Yeke Yeke’ was the first African single to sell over one million copies. An alternative version of the song opens the Akwaba Beach album which came out on the French Barclay label in 1987. In Japan it was released through Mercury and the album was even re-titled ‘Yeke Yeke’ to capitalise on the success of the single in Europe.

Kante’s album has a big sound. The singer’s high, slightly nasal vocals are accompanied throughout by kora and by a band playing guitars, saxophones, trumpet, trombone, keyboards, bass, drums and djembe. There is also the distinctive call and response backing vocals reminiscent of some Okinawan music. But although this is full of keyboards and beats and high energy, the album also contains some softer, slower music with gorgeous melodies and it was this which initially drew me in and which still makes me want to listen to the album now.

The title track ‘Akwaba Beach’ closes the album and it really is the most outstanding song. It begins with the luscious sounds of guitar and keyboards ushering in the vocal which perfectly evokes a mood of nostalgia and longing. It doesn’t matter that Kante is singing in a language that most listeners won’t understand. Whether it’s the relentless beats of ‘Deni’ and ‘Nanfoulen’ or the slightly more subdued ‘Inch’ Allah’ and ‘Africa 2000’ everything is just right and the eight songs contain not a moment of superfluous sound.

Mory Kante comes from a griot family of hereditary musicians and grew up immersed in the kora (African harp) and in roots music. In his early days he was a member of the Rail Band of Mali and when Salif Keita left the band he took over as the main vocalist, eventually moving to Paris to begin his solo career. He has continued to make albums in a similar vein to Akwaba Beach but returned to Africa to make the very different acoustic album Sabou in 2004. He may not have been able to repeat the popular success of Akwaba Beach but the album remains a gem of rich melodies and rhythms which still sounds rather wonderful.

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