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World Music Features

Salif Keita

By Banning Eyre
Published March 9, 2007

Mali’s greatest popular singer, Salif Keita, has come home to Africa. When he moved to France in the late 1970s, Keita was fed up with conservative attitudes forbidding Mande nobles like him to become musicians, and also with corrupt government officials, inferior recording studios, and all the other limitations faced by aspiring musicians in Africa at the time.

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Mali’s greatest popular singer, Salif Keita, has come home to Africa. When he moved to France in the late 1970s, Keita was fed up with conservative attitudes forbidding Mande nobles like him to become musicians, and also with corrupt government officials trying to buy off entertainers, with inferior recording studios, and all the other limitations faced by aspiring musicians in Africa at the time.

By the early ’90s, Keita enjoyed the status of a national treasure in Mali. His defiance of tradition had become lore of its own. Mali was embracing democracy, and digital studios were turning up everywhere. It was time to think about going home. But that would take time. First, the house, and the home studio. Some big concerts.

Eventually, his own nightclub, called Moffou. In 2004, Keita at last completed a studio in Bamako up to his production standards, and set about creating his first album recorded in Africa in over two decades. The result is M’Bemba (Decca), and it represents return and arrival in more ways than just the circumstances of its recording.

“I had everything,” said Keita, recalling the M’Bemba sessions. “I had Toumani Diabaté. I had Mama Sissoko. I had Kante Manfila. I had Djely Moussa Kouyate. I had Ousmane Kouyate. It would have been impossible to bring all these people together in the West. And we were in Africa. It was beautiful!”

This list of musicians recalls most phases of Keita’s meandering career path. Kante Manfila was his guitarist during the ’70s, when Keita was the star singer in Les Ambassadeurs du Motel. Ousmane Kouyate played lead guitar on Keita’s highly-produced, electric albums in the late ’80s and ’90s. Kora master Toumani Diabaté contributed to Keita’s most rock-oriented release, Papa (1999), produced by Vernon Reid. And Djely Moussa Kouyate has been the sole electric guitarist in the almost entirely acoustic and African group that produced Keita’s second Grammy Award-nominated album, Moffou (2002).

The African acoustic sound is not a return, but a discovery for Keita. “People think that in order to make someone dance you have to have electronic instruments and make music that is Western and deracinated,” he said. “I think that there are enough traditional instruments to make people dance in Mali. I do something very original, very acoustic, but to make people dance.”

It is significant that Keita has now produced two consecutive albums using this approach. He used to pride himself on keeping the audience guessing, giving them gauzy French pop on one album, and roots Afropop on the next, followed by a foray into Afro-rock. Keita says that all this experimenting has led him somewhere. “With these two records, I have found the road I must follow,” he said. “I always wanted to do acoustic music with a lot of heart, a lot of soul, without a lot of electronics. But because I had not been to school, I had to work with other people, engineers, musicians, producers. I had to meet other cultures. This gave me the experience I needed to find my road.”

M’Bemba is even stronger and more self-assured than Moffou. The songs are richly layered with plucked strings, shimmering voices and subtly interwoven hand percussion. The styles range from “Kamourkie,” a full-out love song that recalls the drive of Keita’s ’80s crankers, only rendered in gentler tones, to “Dery,” a warm statement of hard-won romantic happiness delivered with the elegant dignity of Mande traditional music. “Ladji” is a funky meditation on the haunting legacy of war, featuring a cameo from Buju Banton, and “Moribo” is a deep, powerful concluding ballad in which Keita’s singular voice is accompani