Kanté Manfila: Pioneering guitarist with the Malian band Les Ambassadeurs

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The Independent Online

A greatly respected but underrated artist, Kanté Manfila was best known as the leader of Les Ambassadeurs, one of the most popular Malian bands of the 1970s and early 80s.

He had a lengthy on/off artistic partnership with the group's lead singer, Salif Keita, which continued during their solo careers.

Guinea-born Kanté was a skilled arranger and songwriter, noted for his poignant lyrics in Maninka. His most enduring achievement as a guitarist was to combine European-style chords and harmonies with techniques based on those for traditional West African stringed instruments. He influenced a generation of guitarists who made Guinean popular music one of the world's most sublime cultural treasures.

"I was the first Guinean to apply the chordal progressions of the guitar 'methodique' to traditional Mandé music. At the time, I was criticised, but afterwards, everybody else started doing the same," he told the journalist Lucy Duran in 1991.

Manfila was the first son among 26 children in a family who belonged to Guinea's hereditary blacksmith caste. At eight, he began playing balafon (a large wooden xylophone) alongside his father and soon secretly began playing a cousin's guitar. He gave up school at 14, when he was sent to live with an uncle in Abidjan, where he began to earn money playing traditional pieces on balafon and guitar at festivities. One day he heard a Beninois soldier playing the guitar "methodique", which sparked his own stylistic transformation.

He played guitar in the bands Independence Jazz and Rhythm de la Bia and by 1966 had released his first 45rpm disc "Horoya" as Kanté Manfila et Son Orchestre. (By then he had reversed the order of his names to avoid confusion with his cousins Manfila "Dabadou" Kanté and Manfila "Soba" Kanté, both also musicians). After six more singles, he left with a friend going to Mopti, in Mali. When his father died in April 1970, Manfila decided to return to Kankan, where his family had moved after his birth, but en route in Bamako, he learned that he might be arrested in Guinea.

He thus remained in Bamako, where he heard that Les Ambassadeurs du Motel needed a guitarist. Joining them in 1972, he soon became the chef d'orchestre. Les Ambassadeurs' main competitors were the Rail Band, who featured Salif Keita and Mory Kanté. However, rivalry between the two singers caused Keita's defection to Les Ambassadeurs that same year. Manfila had also been Les Ambassadeurs' main singer, but he stepped aside in deference to Keita's obvious talent. As a result, the two became firm friends and began writing songs together.

It wasn't until 1975 that the first single by Kante Manfila et les Ambassadeurs appeared. A year later they released their debut LP, Les Ambassadeurs du Motel. In 1978, after a dispute between the director of the group and Manfila, he decided to go back to Abidjan. Keita told the director: "If Manfila leaves, I leave. If Manfila eats pebbles, then I'll eat pebbles too!" They left, along with most of the band, setting up in Abidjan as Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux.

After initial difficulties, they had a hit with the epic "Mandjou", a song Keita had composed with Manfila in praise of President Sékou Touré. The other best-known song by the group was "Primprin". It was recorded on a 1980 trip to the US, but after their return Keita and Manfila began to drift apart artistically. Keita left for Paris in 1982; in 1985 Manfila followed. He struggled to establish a solo career, but eventually recorded the electric album Musicale Mandingue (1987). The ravishing acoustic follow-up, Tradition (1988) became Manfila's most successful, but he returned to electric guitar for Diniya (1990).

That year he also revisited Guinea with the German producer Günter Gretz to record the lo-fi Kankan Blues (PAM, 1991), which returned to the acoustic guitar sèche ("dry guitar") style of his youth. They also made N'na Niwale (1994) back in Paris, and returned to Guinea for Back to Faranbah (1998).

The 1995 compilation Ni Kanu brought Manfila's electric music limited international exposure, as did Clash Mandingue (2008), a collection of his early singles. Manfila had rekindled his partnership with Keita by contributing arrangements and guitar to Keita's 1991 album, Amen. An acoustic 1980 recording of theirs surfaced as The Lost Album in 2005 to critical acclaim. The same year, Manfila settled in the Guinean capital of Conakry, although he had to return to Paris for medical treatment.

Manfila Kanté, guitarist, singer and composer: born Faranbah, Eastern Guinea 1946; married three times (ten children); died Paris 20 July 2011.