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African Legends

Salif Keita

By Tom Terrell
Published November 9, 2006

Salif Keita is one of the most recognized voices in Afropop music. No doubt the “African Caruso” would add, “But I am the greatest,” and few would deign to disagree.

Salif Keita is one of the most recognized voices in Afropop music. No doubt the “African Caruso” would add, “But I am the greatest,” and few would deign to disagree. The near-Sisyphean struggles endured and Olympian triumphs attained over the five-decade course of Keita’s hard-knock life are compelling and conclusive arguments for the defense.

Salifou Keita was born on August 25, 1949. Dada Keita’s sunniest day went eclipse when he saw that Salifou was an albino. 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. 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 him or gave up the love.

Salifou knew his destiny was to win hearts, minds and soul with song but for many years, he told no one. Finally, at the age of 28, he screwed up the courage to tell his father of his Griot dreams. Bad idea. The elder Keita was livid. Griots are a lower caste—to become one is strictly forbidden by ancestral mores. The penalty is automatic ostracism by the community. Salifou had had enough; in early ’68, he split for the capital city of Bamako.

Salif (as he now called himself) got his first big break as lead vocalist of the Hotel de la Gare’s resident orchestra, the Rail Band of Bamako. In 1973, Keita was “stolen” by Guinean guitar legend Kante Manfila’s ensemble Les Ambassadeurs, who became West African superstars almost literally overnight. But Salif knew his dream quest would not be concluded in Mama Africa.

Keita relocated to Paris in 1984, and in ’87 he recorded his solo debut, Soro, which became Afropop’s most unlikely bridge to the U.K./European pop charts. Six albums and countless world tours later, Salif Keita is a global superstar. His most recent album, M'Bemba, exemplifies the multifaceted complexity of his gestalt in ways both microcosmic and macrocosmic, obvious and subliminal. M'Bemba is Keita’s return to those magical yesterdays when he sat eyes-closed/legs-crossed, lost in Griot dreamtime.