Country : Mali
An ambassador of Malian music since his early days in Bamako and Abidjan in the 1970s and an African superstar and pillar of world music since the 1980s, Salif Keita is marking the 50th anniversary of the start of his career and his own 70th birthday with the release of his latest album, “Un autre blanc.”
Nicknamed “the Golden Voice of Africa” or “the Nightingale” of Africa, Salif Keita was not destined to be a music maker. Born in Djoliba, a village along the Niger River, he includes among his ancestors the founder of the Mandinka Empire, which extended from the Atlantic to Niger. The Keita family opposed his becoming a musician, because only the griot caste, which perpetuates the oral tradition through music, is authorized to follow this path.
An albino from birth, Salif Keita was rejected by his father and discriminated against by the other children. Young Salif wanted to become a teacher but was disqualified due to his abnormally white skin colour and his weak eyesight. Music ended up saving his life by enabling him to travel and to reach millions of people. Being an albino – with a golden voice – made him a winner instead of a loser, a humanist rather than a victim.
A singer in the Super Rail Band at the Hôtel de la Gare in Bamako and then star of the group Les Ambassadeurs and later of Les Ambassadeus Internationaux in Abidjan, Salif Keita soon drew attention. He was decorated by Guinean President Ahmed Sékou Touré in 1977 and achieved immediate success with his first album, “Mandjou” and its title song paying tribute to the Mandinka people and to President Touré, a pioneer of African decolonization. This vital track in Salif’s discography established the threesome of his orchestration: guitar, organ and saxophone.
In the 1980s, his success at French festivals led him to settle in Montreuil, a Paris suburb, putting him close to the Malian community. He recorded his second album, “Soro,” with Senegalese producer Ibrahima Sylla, making him the de facto founder of Afro-pop and propelling his career on the European scene.
In 1988, he took part in the concert for the liberation of Nelson Mandela, at Wembley Stadium in London, then spoke out against African immigrants being sent back to the border with the hit “Nous pas bouger” (Don’t move us), taken from the album “Ko-Yan” (1989). There followed “Amen,” recorded in 1991 with American jazz greats Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter along with guitarist Carlos Santana. Santana would say of Salif Keita that, “with the power and beauty of his voice,” he is one of the greatest singers he has ever known.
Keita has not forgotten his origins and continues to show commitment toward people like himself. He set up a foundation to support albinos, who are victims of discrimination and even of human sacrifice in Africa – they are said to have evil powers. He has supported this cause throughout his career. His daughter Nantenin, an albino like him, appears on the cover of the album “Folon” (1995). Nantenin was raised in France to escape this persecution and became a world and Paralympic champion in athletics.
Keita also founded the Wanda studio in Bamako, inviting a new generation of Malian musicians, including the singer Rokia Traoré. His album “Moffou” (2002) marked his return and propelled him into the ranks of world stars, with more than 250,000 copies sold. The disco version of the track “Madan” by Martin Solveig achieved such success that he launched “Remixes from Moffou” in 2004. Afro-electro is very much in the picture!
Back in Mali in 2004, the prodigal son gave three monster concerts and organized a day-long session on the theme of “the development of the African music sector and its impact on the struggle against poverty, AIDS and other pandemics on the continent.” His social involvement led him to be named United Nations Ambassador for Sports and Music.
Salif Keita highlights his albinism in “La difference” (2009), an album that earned him a 2010 Victoires de la musique award in France. With its harmonious blend of Oriental and Mandinka music, this production also shows through its impressive credits (including musicians Seb Martel, Vincent Segal, Bill Frisell and Ibrahim Maalouf) the artistic respect that Keita inspires.
At the Festival Nuits d’Afrique, Salif Keita is presenting his latest work, “Un autre Blanc” (2019). This legacy album, recorded partly at his Bamako studio, brings together major African stars whom he regards as his extended family: Angélique Kidjo, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Alpha Blondy as well as MHD, the young pope of Afro-trap, and Nigerian Afro-pop singer Yemi Alade. As for his group, he surrounded himself with sure bets: bass player Alune Wade, Paco Séry on drums, Hervé Samb on lead guitar, his compatriot Cheick Tidiane Seck and his former producer Jean-Philippe Rykiel on keyboards.
On the M Telus stage, Salif Keita will be performing his 10 latest songs, including “Were were” (“We are proud” in Mandinka) commemorating pan-Africanists such as Thomas Sankara and Patrice Lumumba, and “Syrie,” denouncing armed conflict worldwide. The audience will be dancing to “Tonton,” the affectionate nickname given by young women to their sugar daddy of husbands, and to “Bah Poulo,” the story of a Peul fan who learned Mandinka and Bambara to accompany Salif Keita’s songs. It goes to show that music can bring people together!
But Salif Keita has warned that this is his last album and probably one of his last tours. After 50 years on the road, the Nightingale of Africa needs to get back and alight on a mango tree in his native land.