Vieux Kante was born in 1974 in Niesmala in the Sikasso region of Mali. Though blind from childhood, he participated in musical activities like other kids, starting out at the age of seven on djembe drum. Vieux’s talent was immediately obvious to all. When he was eleven, his brothers would go out to work in the fields, leaving him alone in the house. Vieux took to borrowing his brothers’ six-string harp, thekamele n’goni, and learned to play the things he had heard on the radio and at local parties, where the kamele n’goni was then king.


Vieux Kanté

A smaller, higher-pitched version of the donson n’goni (hunter’s harp), the kamele n’goni (youth harp) was not restricted by the secrecy and taboo surrounding hunter’s culture. The kamele n’goni was something of a youth itself, invented only in the 1960s. In a few short years, it had transformed village recreation throughout the Wassoulou region, which includes southern Mali, northern Guinea and part of Ivory Coast. So Vieux tapped into a deep vein of popular emotion when he emerged as one of the hottest young kamele n’goni players. When he moved to the Malian capital, Bamako, he also proved an innovator who helped to « evolve » the instrument. Ever in search of new possibilities, he began adding strings, from six to eight in 1987, then ten in 1998, and twelve in 2000. These modifications gave him more than an octave and a complete major or minor scale. As for the remaining notes, the « jazz notes, » Vieux said that although they are not on the instrument, he could play them— »You have to do those yourself, » he said, « using your own head. »


When Afropop Worldwide met Vieux and recorded him in March, 2005, he demonstrated amazing techniques for sliding across strings, bending notes, and creating unusual percussion effects. It was obvious why he was considered one of the most dynamic and accomplished solo players in the country. At the time, Vieux was leading his own group, with a lineup of two kamele n’goni , bass guitar, drums, djembe, and two singers. Word was they had recorded a cassette, but it had yet to hit the market. Then, just a few months later, came word that Vieux had died after a sudden illness. We can only hope that all the recordings he made will eventually see the light of day, because this was truly an extraordinary artist. (Banning Eyre) —Courtesy Calabash Music