Soumaoro Kanté (var.: Sumanguru Kanté) was a 13th-century king of the Sosso people. Seizing Koumbi Saleh, the capital of the recently defunct Ghana Empire, Soumaoro Kanté proceeded to conquer several neighboring states, including the Mandinka people in what is now Mali. However, the Mandinka prince Sundiata Keita built a coalition of smaller kingdoms to oppose him at the Battle of Kirina (c. 1235.), defeating the Sosso and leaving Sundiata's new Mali Empire dominant in the region.
Soumaoro Kanté is portrayed as a villainous sorcerer-king in the national epic of Mali, the Epic of Sundiata. After his defeat at Kirina, he flees into the mountains of Koulikoro, where he "disappears" after being shot with only weapon to which he is vulnerable - an arrow with a white rooster crest on it. In the Epic of Sundiata, Soumaoro Kanté is described as owning a balafon with magical powers, which is stolen by Sundiata Keita's djeli, Balafasseke Kouyate, and brought to Manden. This is the origin of the Manden djeli tradition of balafon playing. The balafon of Soumaoro Kanté is said to be kept by the Kouyate family to this day in the village of Niagassola in Guinea.
Soumaoro is viewed as one of the true champions of Traditional African religion due to his reputation in the epic as someone possessing extraordinary magical powers. According to Fyle, Soumaoro was the inventor of the balafon and the dan (a four-string guitar used by the hunters and griots).
As evidence of his supernatural powers, the griot Lansine Diabate notes "At that time, owing to his magical powers, every fly which rested on the balafon of Soso [the royal musician], Sunaworo was able to find it out from a cloud of flies and kill it." Diabate goes on to say that it was when the balafon player first refused to play for the king that Soumaoro Kanté's demise was anticipated.