Born: Salifou Keita; Djoliba, Mali, 25 August 1949
Best-selling album since 1990: Soro (re-release 1990)
Nicknamed the "Golden Voice of Mali," Salif Keita is the artist most responsible for arousing international interest in the music of his native Mali by casting it in the conventions of Western rock and pop music. In doing so, Keita created a formula that was emulated by other
African artists seeking to popularize the music of their respective traditions and cultures.
Born in the heart of Mali, Salif Keita was an albino in a rural West African culture so filled with superstitions about being black but having white skin that his own family was afraid of him. Growing up hidden away and isolated, in part because of his lack of natural protection against the region's tropical climate and hot sun, Keita turned inward and developed deep passions for reading, study, and music. He studied to become a schoolteacher, but the increasingly poor eyesight that was a symptom of albinism kept him from being able to teach for a living. Enormously moved by encounters with jelis or griots, the professional class of troubadours who would sing powerfully of the region's royal history, family sagas, and oral traditions, Keita began developing his own voice in the jeli tradition. One needed to be a jeli by birth, however, and so Keita would go out by himself deep into his father's fields and practice and mold his singing prowess by serenading the area wildlife until he developed an enormously distinctive and dynamic vocal instrument. At eighteen Keita left home and set off for the Mali capital of Bamako and began singing on the streets, making his way into clubs. Heard by Tidiane Koné, the founder and leader of the government-sponsored sixteen-piece Rail Band du Buffet Hôtel de la Gare (later known as the Super Rail Band de Bamako), Keita became a star attraction in one of the country's most revered and innovative bands. After traveling abroad for a short time in 1972, Keita returned to Bamako to find the rising Guinean singer Mory Kanté singing his lead repertoire with the Rail Band and felt so snubbed that he joined the act's biggest rival, Les Ambassadeurs du Motel (later called Les Ambassadeurs Internationales).
After over a decade with the Ambassadeurs, Keita left the band and moved to Paris in 1984 and began secretly recording Soro (1987) with French keyboardist Jean-Philippe Rykriel and Senegalese producer Ibrahima Sylla. Soro ignited enormous international interest in Keita and the music of his beloved Mali.
Keita had left behind Afro-Cuban influences so indelibly associated with his work with the Ambassadeurs and began aggressively mixing traditional music of Mali with Western rock and pop. This same, widely emulated formula marked the majority of Keita's releases of the 1990s: Keita would soulfully wail away like a warning siren—usually in his native Bambara language—over soundscapes made up of Western synthesizers, guitars, and brass instruments alongside African polyrhythms, choruses, and the traditional kora, a cross between a harp and a lute. The Afro-pop Amen (1990), produced by Weather Report's Joe Zawinul, is Keita's most Western and commercial album to date. Sosie (1997) marks an unusual departure for Keita as it is made up of repertoire made famous by French singers such as Serge Gainsbourg, Michel Legrand, and Bernard Lavilliers. The album Papa (1999) includes a duet with Grace Jones and is an intensely melancholy and personal one for Keita. It marks a musical coming-to-terms of sorts with the 1995 death of his father, who had rejected Keita as a boy because of his albinism and had later disowned him when he left home to go into music; the two had long since reconciled, however. Moffou (2002) is named after the small, shrill traditional West African flute and is also the name of the nightclub that Keita opened in Bamako in 2002 to spotlight the ever-burgeoning West African music scene. Whereas the all-acoustic Moffou opens with an upbeat duet with Cesaria Evora, the heart of the album is a welcome, unadulterated return to Keita's roots: soulful ballads of Mali sung by an artist at the peak of his interpretive powers.
Soro (Mango/Island re-release, 1990); Amen (Mango/Island, 1991); The Mansa of Mali . . . A Retrospective (Mango/Island, 1994); Folon: The Past (Mango/Island, 1995); Seydou Bathili (Sonodisc re-release, 1997); Papa (Blue Note, 1999); 1969-1980 (Sonodisc, 2000); Sosie (Mellemfolkeligt re-release, 2001); Moffou (Decca/Universal, 2002); Ko-yan (Palm/Island re-release, 2003). With Les Ambassadeurs Internationales: Les Ambassadeurs Internationales with Salif Keita (Rounder re-release, 1992). With Super Rail Band de Bamako: Rail Band (Melodie re-release, 1996); Mansa (Indigo/Harmonia Mundi re-release, 1996); Mory Kanté & Salif Keita (Sonodisc, 2000); De Bamako (Indigo/Harmonia Mundi re-release, 2001). Soundtracks: Baobab (Polygram, 1992); Besieged (Milan Records, 1999); Twice Upon a Yesterday (Narada, 1999); Ali (Universal, 2001).
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