Radio Africa
Kanté Manfila - in memoriam
1946 - 20 July 2011

Kanté Manfila, one of Africa's greatest guitarists, has died. He will be remembered as the chef d'orchestre of Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux, where his collaborations with Salif Keita propelled West African music to the forefront of the African music scene, thanks to songs such as "Mandjou", "Seydou Bathily", "Ntoma", and "Primpin".  

Manfila was born in 1946 in Farabanah near Kankan. He is not of the Mand
é griot heritage, as many journalists have assumed, but of Mandé blacksmith lineage. Such heritage, however, does not preclude the learning of musical instruments of the griots, and from the age of eight Manfila began to play the balafon before moving to the acoustic guitar. Among his relatives are many prominent musicians. His cousins include Kanté Facelli, arguably Guinea's pre-eminent guitarist and the co-founder Les Ballet Africains, and Sandaly "Balakala" Kanté, the lead guitarist with the Horoya Band and then the 22 Band. He is also related to, and often confused with, Kanté "Soba" Manfila, the lead singer of Balla et ses Balladins, and Kanté "Dabadou" Manfila, the lead singer of Keletigui et ses Tambourinis. When he was 14 he moved to Abidjan, thus avoiding the restrictive atmosphere which dictated the arts during Guinea's Cultural Revolution under Sékou Touré. His musicianship developed rapidly and he played in orchestras (Rythme de la Bia and Independence Jazz) and had formed his own group while still in his teens. He first recordings were 45 rpms on the local Djima label, recorded in the late 1960s. In 1972 he moved to Bamako where he joined Les Ambassadeurs du Motel as the lead singer and lead guitarist. Shortly after, Salif Keita left the Super Rail Band and decided to join the group. There was much talk of potential rivalry between these two frontmen, but this was far from the truth. Recognising and respecting each other's talents created a deep bond, and the two worked closely together on the arrangements and lyrics of songs. Les Ambassadeurs du Motel grew to become the chief rival of the Super Rail Band, and it took a popularity competition to decide who was the best in the public eye. The Malian government asked that each group write a song to promote a new literacy campaign and then perform it at a concert where the audience would decide the winner. The result from Manfila and Salif was "Kibaru", a 26 minute opus. On the night of the performance, and what a gig that would have been, both bands were declared winners. Les Ambassadeurs du Motel enjoyed a great popularity thereafter in Bamako, and released several long play recordings. In 1976 however, Manfila, Salif, and many other members of the group left Bamako for Abidjan, where they formed Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux. The reasons for moving were largely financial, peppered with increasing disatisfaction with the military regime of Moussa Traoré. Abidjan was the centre of a booming music industry which was reaching its peak. Manfila's and Salif's first recordings, however, were not with their orchestra, but were acoustic sets: two albums of traditional music titled Dans l’authenticité volumes 1 & 2. Released on the Badmos label, the LPs feature Salif singing traditional griot songs to the accompaniment of Manfila's balafon and arrangements. These recordings are magificent in their own right, though it was with their orchestra Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux that the fame arrived. Within a year of arriving, Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux had become the most popular group in the city. 

The group's first recording was the album "Mandjou". The title track is
without doubt one of the greatest African songs recorded (a video of the song is here). A homage to the Touré clan, and in particular to Pres. S
ékou Touré, it blended traditional Mandé melodies with jazz, a feat largely achieved through the skill and leadership of Manfila. His guitar solo in the song illustrates not only his balafon background, but also references the deep riches of Mandé music. One can only sit back and admire his ability to transpose and transform his tradition. As a guitarist, his role in modernising Guinean and African music was enormous. In an interview with Lucy Duran ("Kante Manfila", Folk Roots, volume 100, October 1991, pp 20-26) Manfila states that he was "the first Guinean to apply the chordal progressions of the guitar "methodique" to traditional Mande music". Such is his legacy that a generation of musicians were influenced by him. Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux released a total of 6 LPs and in doing so they advanced Mandé music and modernised it. All of their recordings have been re-released on compact disc. 

In 1982 Salif left Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux and moved to Paris. Manfila stayed in Abidjan and continued to perform, though times had changed and in 1985 he, too, emigrated to Paris. Among his first solo recordings were
Musicale Mandingue and Tradition, both on the Tangent label operated by Albert Lourdes of Société Ivoirienne du Disque. In the 1990s he released three CDs under the theme of "Kankan blues", recordings which saw him continue his exploration of Mandé musical traditions in the diaspora. He also collaborated with Salif on the album "Amen", which he described as a recording which sought to recreate the feeling of Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux. Recently, his early Djima recordings were re-released as "Clash Mandingue", thus bringing his music to new audiences. In 2005, Mali’s president honoured Manfila with one of the highest awards, the Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mali, for his role in the development of Malian music during the 1970s.

His passing is a great loss and I extend my sympathies to his friends and family.

A discography of Kanté Manfila's vinyl recordings can be found in the Guinean vinyl discography page. His recordings with Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux can be found here.