Salif Keita is one of the four most universally recognized voices in Afropop music (Youssou N’Dour, Baaba Maal and Angelique Kidjo being the others). No doubt the “African Caruso” would add, “But I am the greatest,” and few would deign to disagree. Reducing this forum to a mere popularity/pissing contest would be counterproductive. Forget the hype and base judgment on stone-cold facts: The near-Sisyphean struggles endured and Olympian triumphs attained over the five-decade course of Salif Keita’s hard-knock life are way more compelling/conclusive arguments for the defense.
The River Niger flows full and strong through the African nation called Mali. In the heart of the country, on the banks of that great waterway, lies the ancient village of Djoliba (the Niger’s original name). For many, many generations, the Keita clan has farmed and prospered from their Djoliba maize plantations. Before they were farmers, the Keitas were purple-blooded royalty. Their revered ancestor was Sounjata, the legendary 13th Century monarch-statesman who convinced the most large-and-in-charge warlords to channel their mutually opposed ambitions into a power-sharing coalition. The result was the founding of the fabled Mali Empire (encompassing Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Burkina-Faso, Ivory Coast and Mauritania).
In a family such as this, the prime imperative is to procreate male heirs that will continue the bloodline. It was foretold by the village seers that the third baby Mama Keita would birth would be a manchild as noble, powerful, spiritual as Sounjata himself. He would move mountains and heal souls. A true Mansa (“spiritual warrior/ruler”). A blessing on the House of Keita. Nine months later, the fairytale fractures.
Salifou Keita was born at home on August 25, 1949. Dada Keita’s sunniest day went eclipse when he beheld his newborn. The gods were extraordinarily cruel—little Salifou was an albino. See, in his culture, a black born with white skin is evil, cursed by the gods. Such a child brings his family misfortune, shame and dishonor, and is destined for a life of ridicule, mistreatment and physical discomfort (chronic sunburn, fried corneas). As he held his son, Pops thought not of Sounjata’s prophecies fulfilled but of dreams now forever deferred. So ashamed was papa that he uttered the unthinkable—he would never speak directly to his son, show him affection or express fatherly pride. From that day on, Salifou was treated like Cinderfella--clothed, fed and disciplined yet kept out of sight, out of mind. Even worse, his father never spoke to