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Mory Kante: In search of the colour of music

Mory Kante, the legendary West African griot, tells Tim Cumming how he combines traditional sources of music with Western instruments in his new album, Sabou

Mory Kante has just had an acoustic guitar delivered to him to use for a radio broadcast the next day. In his trademark flowing white robes, sitting at a corner table of the bar at the Travel Inn that used to be the GLC building on the south bank of the Thames, Kante spends the next few minutes running his fingers over the fretboard, reeling off exquisite African guitar lines, before putting the instrument back in its case with a satisfied smile.

Kante is one of the great griot musicians of west Africa. "Griots," he says, "are basically journalists, concerned with the traditions of their civilisation." Most of African history is transmitted orally, from father to son, and griots have been witnesses to that history for the past 1,000 years. In the Mandé languages of west Africa, the word means blood. "And it's your blood that knows your body best," says Kante. "The griots are the blood of Mandé society."

Mory Kante was born in 1950 in Guinea, the son of a cantor, a musical griot, and by the age of four he was already playing the balafon, an instrument like a xylophone. With the kora, a harp-like instrument he taught himself in Mali as a teenager, it is still Mory's signature sound, and one of a panoply of instruments on his new album, Sabou (The Source), a record that sees one of Africa's great crossover artists returning to the Mandé griot roots of his music.

A star throughout west Africa, Mory was little known in Europe when he first came to Paris to record an LP in 1982. Homesick and with no papers, he only stayed a few months. Then, after a tour of America, he returned in 1984 to record Ten Kola Nuts, his solo debut with Bruce Springsteen's producer David Sancious. It was a big success, but it was his second contemporary album, 1987's Akwabe Beach, that established him as an international star with the million-selling single "Yeke Yeke". "People call me one of the fathers of world music," he says, laughing. "I never heard about world music before 'Yeke Yeke'. Only afterwards. That's when it started. That's when people started trying to classify it and give it a name."

Kante's crossover blend of slick production melding Western and native instruments with an assured dance-floor sensibility carried him through two albums in the Nineties, culminating in the Afro-funk of 2001's The Voyager. Three years on, and Sabou marks a return to the roots of his music, combining acoustic and bass guitar with an eclectic, esoteric ensemble of traditional griot instruments. It's a project, he says, he's had in mind for years.

"Before I could record anything," he explains, "I had to learn the instruments and understand their frequencies. Every note an instrument makes weighs on the scale. It's like a painting. You take blue and yellow and get green, and that's what I did with my instruments. I wanted to get back to the source of their sounds and what they could do; which rhythm you could play. I had to make a foundation. It was like building a home."

Kante's supple, intricate arrangements make it a music drawn from the tradition and placed firmly in the modern world. Its detailing and colour emerges with each successive listening. "Some of the instruments are very subtle," he says. "You don't realise that you're hearing it, and that brings a lot into this music. Sometimes it's hard to understand how the sounds on the record were made. You might think there's a synthesiser on it." Using traditional means for contemporary ends is at the heart of his music, and has been for years. "People say Sabou is a different direction," he says, "but I don't see it as that. It's part of my whole life."

'Sabou' is out now on Riverboat Records. Mory Kante tours Britain on 22-25 October, and plays at the National Jazz Festival on 17 November