The world lost its griot today. RIP Mory Kante

In the 1980s, Mory Kante’s song “Yeke Yeke”, took the world by storm. It was played on every radio station and nightclubs in the country. The song brought a sense of happiness that I had never heard before. I just fell in love with it, and memorized every single word, even though I had absolutely no idea what anything meant. But, the music, the lyrics, were so musical, one can’t but at least try to sing (or dance) along. In 1998, when I was in London presenting at a conference, I walked into a clothing store that was playing the song. I remember stopping in my tracks until the song ended, and running over to the person who was at the counter to ask what the song was called and who was the artist. Yup. I never did know who it was before.

And today I wake up to the news that Mory Kante, the world’s greatest griot, had died in his sleep at age 70. The New York Times has a wonderful tribute to him where they highlight his life and his contributions, not only to music, but also to social and cultural issues, such as gender equality, FGM, and, as he notes, in the “emancipation of African music as part of universal music.”

One thing I didn’t realize is that the lyrics remain a “mystery” in English. The only translation that I’ve seen seems “off”. People can’t even tell the language (if any African linguists can shed light on this!), but some hypothesize that it’s Mandinka, a language spoken by the Mandinka people in Guinea, Guinea Bissau, and The Gambia. And, I just learned, that it’s written in Latin or Arabic script.

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