Music journalist Banning Eyre first heard about blind kamalé ngoni player Vieux Kanté on a visit to the Malian capital of Bamako in February 2005. After picking up on the buzz that surrounded the 31-year-old musician in town, he decided to meet him for an interview. Eyre spent an hour speaking with Kanté and listening to him give spontaneous performances. His instrument, the kamalé ngoni, was designed in the 1960s as a sort of secular version of the traditional donso ngoni, which is typically played only at ceremonial functions; it uses a harplike arrangement of strings similar to that of a kora, and Kanté had a customized 12-string version. He shared his story and mentioned casually that he'd just recorded an album of his own music.
A few months later Kanté died of a sudden illness at age 31, and that recording was shelved. It's taken 11 years, but The Young Man's Harp (Sterns)—the title is an English translation of kamalé ngoni—has finally been released, with liner notes and photos from Eyre. Kanté's virtuosity hasn't aged a day: he masterfully incorporates a variety of effects and nonlocal styles into his playing, including blue notes, harmonics, and friction sounds. On today's 12 O'Clock Track, "Sinamon," he vamps nimbly beneath the soulful, passionate singing of Kabadjan Diakite, then unleashes a remarkable solo that veers between bluesy stabs, lyrical tumbles, surflike riffs, and even a run of squeaky sounds that seems to imitate the Brazilian cuica. The entire album is impressive, especially the opening instrumental track, "Sans Commentaire," where Kanté casually casts a seven-minute spell. The early loss of such a talent is a double tragedy—we can only imagine where he would've taken his music by now. At least we can be thankful that this vibrant recording has surfaced to give us a glimpse.