The singer, songwriter and dancer famously known as the “Sunshine of Eritrea” was a renowned player of the krar, the bowl shaped five string lyre.
Born in 1939, she became a famous singer in the bars of Asmara and released several songs about love and politics in the 1970s and 80s that made her target of the military junta in Addis Ababa.
She fled the war in 1988, first to Sudan and eventually to the Dutch city of Rotterdam. There she lived in obscurity until she met members of the punk band Ex who organised for her to acquire a new kirar and to begin working on a set of songs.
The product of that collaboration was her last album “Selam” a double CD compilation of her greatest hits and new songs recorded between 2000-2003 by Dutch producer Dolf Planteijdt and the group Ex. The album was also accompanied by a book containing her biography, lyrics and a collection of her photos.
Her death marks the end of an era for an artist whose music was the soundtrack for a 30-year-conflict and ultimate independence of Eritrea.
Meanwhile, the death of Kasse robs Mali of one of its most successful musicians in a country that has produced some of Africa’s most extraordinary talents.
Along with legends like Toumani Diabate and Bassekou Kouyate, Kasse was music royalty in his country and was acknowledged as “the greatest singer in Mali” by his compatriot Salif Keita.
Born in 1949 in the village of Kela in the west of Mali, Kasse grew up in the Manding culture of hereditary praise-singers, storytellers and musicians. The nickname Kasse came from the Bambara word “kassi” meaning to weep, as his voice was said to bring tears to his listeners.
In 1973, he became lead singer of Orchestre Regional Super Mande de Kangaba that won the Biennale music competition in the capital, Bamako. He caught the attention of Las Maravillas de Mali (Mali’s Marvels), a group of musicians who had studied music in Cuba and returned to Mali to play their interpretations of Cuban classics. They invited Kasse Mady to join them as lead singer.
The group changed its name to Badema National and achieved great success throughout West Africa with a style that combined the Cuban music with Malian roots repertoire.
Kasse Mady’s international break came in 1988 when he left Mali and recorded his first solo album in Paris for the famous Senegalese producer Ibrahima Sylla. He spent the next decade recording and performing in France before returning to Mali in the late 1990s.
Several collaborations followed including “Songhai” with flamenco group Ketama and Toumani Diabate and “Kulanjan” with American blues musician Taj Mahal and Diabate. Barack Obama cited the latter as one of his favourite albums of all time during a survey for the Borders bookstore chain.
In 2015, Kasse Mady recorded the album “Kirike” (horse saddle) along with three young Malian musicians, kora musician, Ballake Sissoko, balafon player Lansine Kouyate and ngoni player Makan Tounkara. The instrumentalists weaved a contemporary acoustic sound around the gentle rich baritone of the legendary singer.
The songs focused on themes like living in peace amongst neighbors and heroism expressed through griot symbols like the hippopotamus, the kingfisher and the horse’s saddle.
Kasse Made Diabate’s contribution in opening the door for so many of his country’s singers to excel at an international level will be his greatest legacy to Malian cultural heritage.