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Keita, Salif (Salif Keita) (Mali)  
Salif Keita © SGordon 2006

SINCE the dawn of time, to protect their crops and fruit from the voracity of bird-life, the peasants of the Sahel play the moffou. It's an instrument for humble people, available to everyone, and made by hand according to techniques that go back to the origins of humanity. A little flute that produces a shrill, nasal sound that winged creatures particularly detest. In short, there's nothing so simple, more elementary, nor more eternal, than this little object.

Moffou is both the title of Salif Ke´ta's latest album, and the name of the club that the singer has just opened in Bamako to promote the West African music scene. In both cases, the choice of the name was deliberate, and it expresses a genuine desire to return to the roots, to the dark continent and Mali, the land of the Bambara, Malink and Sonink peoples, with their separate cultures and ways of life, their rituals and traditions. It irritates detractors of the man called the "African Caruso", those who accuse him of having strayed too far from his origins. It's true that Sosie (released in 1997) was a French song album, and Papa (1999, recorded partly in New York and produced by funk-rock guitarist Vernon Reid) didn't skimp electronics and urban rhythms but, like Folon (1995), moulded in the Mandingo tradition, Moffou, an entirely acoustic CD, is a work that's 100% African in inspiration. clarity and vigour, delivers one of his freshest, dizziest and most authentic recordings.Here, with soul and pop influences temporarily shelved, Salif Ke´ta's celestial voice, possessed with exceptional

vocals, bandleader
Genre: African
This could well be a peak in a career that began thirty-four years ago in 1968, when Salif, aged twenty-something, left the banks of the River Niger, the fields and his family home, to try his luck in Bamako, the capital. More than a new start, it was an escape, a clean break. The reason being that the childhood and adolescence of Salifou Ke´ta, born August 25, 1949 in the village of Djoliba (the Niger's first name) in the heart of Mali, was anything but a pleasure.

Call it destiny's whim, a nasty stroke of Fate, but Salifou was born an albino. Being black with a white skin comes as a curse in this part of the world: native beliefs - not to say superstitions - give albinos evil powers, and their physical difference brings with it ridicule, bad treatment, blacklisting. The rays of the sun, which burn with great heat in the region, are torture to albinos, considerably worsening their sight. So the baby was hidden, disowned, isolated. It was years before his own father even considered speaking to him. The boy grew up a loner, taking delight in books and study, and he developed a passion for the song of the griots, the wandering poets who went between townships telling royal sagas, relaying family odysseys and handing down the oral tradition from generation to generation. And it was here, in the countryside, where he spent part of his days vociferating against the skylarks, swifts, patas and baboons swooping down on his father's maize plantations, that Salif shaped his voice into something as astonishing as it was gripping, unique and immediately identifiable.

But the problem remained: the Ke´tas, proud farmers for generations, were a noble family, direct descendants of the valorous (and feared) Sounjata, a puny, paralysed prince who showed formidable prowess in federating a great number of clans who were enemies and who, at the turn of the 13th century, formed the powerful Mali empire (whose frontiers then encompassed Senegal, Guinea, Burkina-Faso and part of what is today Mauritania, the Ivory Coast and the Niger.)

An aristocrat doesn't sing! It was a subject on which the young Salif's family was totally inflexible: music was exclusively for the caste of the griots. To choose their path meant transgressing ancestral rules, and one automatically became a community outcast. The only solution was to leave.

In Bamako at the end of the Sixties, the voice of Salif Ke´ta gradually seduced the musicians of the capital, beginning with saxophonist Tidiane Kon the leader of the Rail Band of Bamako, which was delighting evening audiences at the "H˘tel de la Gare" (each of the capital's hotels had its own orchestra.) Impressed by his literally hallucinating vocal potential, Kon hired the young man; he became the true star of the orchestra, and rapidly took it to fame.

In 1973, when a then-unknown singer from Guinea succeeded him - Mory Kante- Salif joined Les Ambassadeurs, another dance band led by singer-guitarist Kante Manfila. Resident in the Bamako Hotel, an establishment with a clientele composed mainly of Westerners, the band proposed a broader, but eclectic repertoire, which bit seriously into Anglo-Saxon pop, French songs and Afro-Cuban rhythms. It toured throughout West Africa before emigrating to the Ivory Coast and its capital, Abidjan, where the technical and commercial structures were much better developed than in Bamako. In 1978 Salif and Company recorded Mandjou there, an enormous commercial success due to the title of the same name. It was there that Salif's international career took off: the Ke´ta trademark, sound and style were already there: organ, keyboards, guitars and saxophones mingled with traditional strings and percussion, snatches of jazz, rock, funk and afro-beat to reshape the contours of ancestral rhythms and chants.

In December 1980 Salif and Kante crossed the Atlantic and spent three months in New York, long enough to record the Primpin and Toukan albums which aroused the same enthusiasm as Mandjou. But Salif already had his mind set on other places: he dreamed of Paris. In France the Afro movement was in full bloom, led by such personalities as Pierre Akendengu, Manu Dibango or Ray Lema.

In the spring of 1984 Salif triumphed at Angoulŕme's Festival of "crossbreed music": he was overwhelmed by the French public's reaction, and the young man from Mali decided to leave Abidjan and settle in France. He slipped humbly, and discreetly, into the Mali population living in the Paris suburbs of Montreuil. A year later he accepted Manu Dibango's invitation to take part in the recording of the title "Tam Tam for Africa", and the song's royalties were donated entirely to the cause in Ethiopia, where famine had never been so murderous.

In 1987 Salif returned to the studios for the first time in six years. Produced by Ibrahim Sylla from Senegal, with arrangements by Franšois BrÚant and Jean-Philippe Rykiel, Salif released Soro, a kind of Mandingo blues sung in Malinki(the majority-language of the Mand people.) The record had sparkling purity, his first masterpiece, and it was an enormous hit! That October, invited to England for a concert to celebrate Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday, he found himself surrounded by established stars - Youssou N'Dour and Ray Lema - and was accepted into the small circle of "world music" masters.

Many tours followed, taking him to every continent. They were accompanied by such albums as Ko-Yan (1988) and Amen (1991), under the artistic direction of Joe Zawinul (among the guests: Wayne Shorter, Carlos Santana, and his own compatriot, keyboard-player Cheick Tidiane Seck), and Salif also gave several concerts with the Syndicate led by the same Joe Zawinul, all of them fusion heroes admired by Salif Ke´ta since the first Weather Report albums at the beginning of the Seventies: "I'll go with Joe whenever he wants. He's a brother, an immense creator!" And then there came Folon (1995), produced by Wally Badarou from Benin (an associate of Grace Jones, Peter Tosh, Joe Cocker) and again arranged by Rykiel (on the sleeve was Nantenin, his niece, also an albino, and this was his third pure marvel), the francophile Sosie (1997) and the funky Papa (1999), both mentioned earlier.

From 1997 onwards, Salif Ke´ta returned more and more frequently to Mali. He kept a pied-terre in Montreuil, where his (numerous) children lived, and opened a studio in Bamako, where he began producing young artists (Fantani Tour, Rokia Traore and devoted himself increasingly to the "SOS Albino" organisation, which he founded in 1990 to give counsel, direction and support to his unfortunate brothers and sisters.

Today, Salif Ke´ta, a Pan-African in his soul, a convinced anti-racist and militant pacifist showing nothing but praise for Nelson Mandela, an artist of uncommon generosity who has always striven to build new bridges between Africa and the rest of the world, has taken a new turning. Today he has a maturity (wisdom) that has moved him to take a greater part in the destiny of his country, to encourage emigrants to return, and protect and promote local artists by working towards the emancipation of African music so that it will no longer be conceived essentially in Europe and America, but in its land of origin.

At a time when the dark continent seems assailed by the vilest of ills (tribal, ethnic and border wars, the shameless exploitation of natural resources by multinational corporations, rotten politics often linked to internal conflicts for the control of the land's deposits - gold, oil, copper, diamonds - pollution, a corrupt elite, excessive debt, illiteracy, misery, famine, devastating disease, the frightening progress of Aids, natural disasters by the ton, the massacre of protected wildlife, the destruction of the forests), Salif Ke´ta obstinately refuses to join the fatalists, and yield to defeat and self-pity: "Happiness is not for tomorrow," he proclaims, "It's not hypothetical, it starts here and now. Down with violence, egoism and despair, stop pessimism. Let's pick ourselves up. Nature has given us extraordinary things. It's not over yet, nothing's decided. Let's take advantage of the wonders of this continent at last. Intelligently, in our own way, at our own rhythm, like responsible men proud of their inheritance. Let's build the country of our children. And stop taking pity on ourselves. Africa is also the joy of living, optimism, beauty, elegance, grace, poetry, softness, the sun, and nature. Let's be happy to be its sons, and fight to build our happiness."

This discourse is translated by the lyrics of Moffou, sung in Malink and in Bambara, which call for joy and love, and evoke the sweet benefits of life. The record is a pretty cocktail of atmospheres, with shimmering colours, highly infectious energy and, above all, a particularly emotional power. Dancing, swaying and carnal themes, "wild rumbas" according to their writer (Baba, Madan, Moussoulou and Koukou) appear alongside sweet songs and ballads (Here, Souvent or the incomparable Ana na ming, a marvellous sketch written when Salif Ke´ta, alone on an island, was dreaming of an imaginary female companion.) A legion of excellent musicians take part in the proceedings: among them, guitar-hero Djelly Moussa Kouyate from Guinea (whose next album, Sebe Alaye, is eagerly awaited), and the inescapable Kante Manfila (acoustic guitar), both of them long-time companions of Salif. And then there's the voice of Cesaria Evora on Yamore, a future hit, the accordion of Benoţt Urbain, the harmonica, marimba and steel-drums of Arnaud Devos, the percussion of the overwhelming Mino Cinelu, the flutes of David Aubaile and, on the traditional instrument side, the calabash, tom-toms, African congas and djembÚs of Mamadou Kone, Adama Kouyate, Souleyman Doumbia and Drissa Bakayoko, the lutes of Jean-Louis Solans and Mehdi Haddad (Ekova), and the n'goni (little guitars) of Sayon Sissoko and Harouna Samake. The album was produced by Jean Lamoot (Noir DÚsir, Alain Bashung, Brigitte Fontaine, Mano Solo.).


Read about Salif Keita's new album in support of Albinism


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