A master of West African rhythms and credited as one of the founders of the Afro-pop genre, Salif Keita is world renowned for his unforgettable live performances, soaring vocals and his emotionally-fueled songs.
On August 25th 1949, Salifou Keïta was born in Djoliba in Mali, a village on the banks of the Niger river,and is a direct descendant of Sunjata Keita, who founded the Mali Empire in 1240. In this heartland of the Mandingan empire, inhabited by several tribes and where several languages are spoken (Bambara, Malinké, Soninké), the birth of an albino baby – ethnically black but with white skin – was considered scandalous. It was believed the baby possessed dangerous powers, especially as his family were direct descendants of the Empire’s thirteenth century founder. So Salif’s father sent him away with his mother. But the optimistic predictions of a religious chief caused him to go back on this decision.
His childhood was a lonely one. Rejected by other children because of the colour of his skin, he was often the butt of jokes.
Even his father never spoke to him for years. An excellent student, he shut himself up in his studies and, fascinated by music, learnt singing by listening to the “griots”. Both poets and singers, these minstrels have handed an oral tradition of family sagas and epic royal tales down through the centuries. Working on his father’s farm, he developed his powerful voice: sent regularly out into the maze fields to scare away monkeys and birds, he spent whole days shouting and vociferating.
Born albino in a land of blistering sun and heat, with limited eyesight and poor despite his social standing, his mother had to hide him to avoid the attacks of the superstitious crowds who called for his death. In addition to the problems of growing up as an albino, Keita found the opposition of his family to his interest in becoming a singer since the traditions of his ancestry excluded members of the nobility from becoming singers. Keita’s decision to become a musician broke an important taboo as in Mali only the lower jeli class makes its living from music.
In 1970, at the age of 18, Salif Keita left Djoliba for Bamako, where he spent time as a street musician and playing in bars. The first group that he worked with was the Super Rail Band, a state-sponsored ensemble that was based at a Bamako railway station hotel, and which has served as an important launching pad for the careers of numerous West African musicians, including kora player and singer Mory Kante, and guitarist Kante Manfila.
A saxophonist, Tidiane Koné, spotted the young singer and invited him to join his group, the Rail band of Bamako, which played at the hotel restaurant at the railway station. Each hotel had its own orchestra which played in the evenings. Thanks to Salif Keïta, the Rail Band became a huge crowd draw. He soon became the star singer, with a repertoire comprised principally of traditional songs sung and arranged in a modern way.
The Rail Band became legendary because it nurtured Mory Kante and Salif Keita and also because it was one of the first to electrify Mandingo music and integrate Afro-Cuban influences which many West African instrumentalists brought back from their stay in Cuba.
In 1973, Salif Keita left the Rail Band, and with guitarist Kante Manfila he joined Les Ambassadeurs, which later became Les Ambassadeurs International. The new group developed the fusion between traditional music and western electric influences. 1977 saw Salif Keita being awarded the National Order of Guinea by Sekou Toure, the Guinean President. By that time, Salif Keita had also discovered American singers like Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Tina Turner. Their powerful way of singing and presence on stage taught Keita a lot about live performances.
Restricted by the limited opportunities and political climate in Mali, the group moved south and set up base in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, where they performed and recorded successfully during the late 1970s. The epic 12 minute track “Mandjou”, that is featured on the Mansa of Mali album, was recorded live in Abidjan during this period.
In 1984 Les Ambassadeurs Internationales broke up, and Salif Keita moved to Paris, launching a career that saw him recording the classic Soro album in 1987, produced by Ibrahim Sylla.
A recording deal with Island Records followed, which resulted in the release of the album Ko-Yan in 1989, an album that nods to the Weather Report sound, and that led directly to Salif’s collaboration with Weather Report keyboard man, composer and arranger Joe Zawinul in 1990. With help from Carlos Santana, Wayne Shorter and a number of carefully picked musicians from Mali and France, Zawinul produced Amen, the album that made Salif the first African band leader to win a Grammy nomination. The impressive Mansa of Mali retrospective was released in 1993 to coincide with Salif Keita’s tours of the United States, and Southern Africa. Recorded in Paris, New York and Bamako, his album, Papa, features special guests Vernon Reid (Living Color), Grace Jones and John Medeski, an album of the new African/American music, bringing together musicians from Mali and America.
On his 2002 album, Moffou, Salif Keita is joined by excellent musicians, including Cape Verdian diva Cesaria Evora on the track Yamore, guitar-hero Djelly Moussa Kouyaté from Guinea, and the inescapable Kanté Manfila (acoustic guitar), both of them long-time companions of Salif. Additional musicians include Benoît Urbain on accordionthe harmonica, marimba and steel-drums of Arnaud Devos, the percussion of the ubiquitous Mino Cinelu and the flutes of David Aubaile. On the traditional instrument side are the calabash, tom-toms, African congas and jembes of Mamadou Kone, Adama Kouyate, Souleyman Doumbia and Drissa Bakayokothe lutes of Jean-Louis Solans and Mehdi Haddad (Ekova)and the n’goni of Sayon Sissoko and Harouna Samake. The album was produced by Jean Lamoot.
Keita’s album “Moffou” was a big hit, selling over 100,000 copies in France and 150,000 in international export (mainly in Europe and the United States). Following Martin Solveig’s remix of the track “Madan”, which took European club dancefloors by storm, Keita’s record company decided to launch their own remix version of “Moffou”, collaborating with electro producers and artists who had already experimented with Afro-electro fusion such as Osunlade, Doctor L. and Frederic Galliano. The album “Remixes from Moffou”, released at the beginning of 2004, extended Salif Keita’s popularity to a new ‘trendy youth’ market via the club circuit and the radio airwaves.
Moffou is both the title of the album and the name of of the club that the singer opened in Bamako in 2002 to promote the West African music scene. In both cases, the choice of the name expresses his genuine desire to return to the roots of Mali.
Keita says he has never felt so happy in the land he was glad to escape at the age of 34. “I never left my country forever, but my early life was tough. I started suffering when I was five.” He was mocked for being albino, and with eyesight so poor that he was excluded from school as a teenager, music seemed like his only career option. “Back then, musicians were viewed as delinquents. My parents were horrified.”
Like his young disaffected Western counterparts in the 1960s, Keita took refuge in music and taught himself to play the guitar, an instrument he fondly refers to as “my first, best wife. Women come and go. They’re always asking where you are, and why? Whereas my guitar is always there, speaking to me in the same way.”
In April of 2004, Decca/Universal Music released Remixes from Moffou. The album expands on the original recording of Moffou that took him on a tour around the world. He collaborated with some of the world?s finest producers and DJ?s, each bringing a unique contribution to the music, changing its tempo and atmosphere. A sound with a whole new dimension, the disc has traces of funk, house and drum-n-bass.Each song on Remixes is transformed – the songs were given a new face without distorting the delicate melodies that were originally written. The idea to remix the entire album was spawned from the feedback that was given from young music fans. They rushed out to buy Yamore (Keita’s duet with Cesaria Evora ) and club kids went crazy for Marin Solveig’s remix of ‘Madan.’ European FM radio stations also took notice of the remix which prompted Universal France to take a step further.
Patrick Votan, artistic director at Universal Jazz France explains, ‘Following the success of Madan? we decided to ask electro artists who are close to the African scene such as Osunlade, Doctor L and Frederic Galliano to work on remixes of other tracks from the album. We also got major mainstream electro stars such as La Funk Mob (the defunct duo of Cassius Philippe Zdar and Boombass who got back together for the project), Charles Webster and Luciano on board the project in the hope that this would take the work of Salif Keita, a unique and original artist, to the ears of a new public.’
Highlights from the disc include three different versions of favorites Madan and Moussoulou. Also featured is the slick mix of Ana Na Ming by La Funk Mob.
On M’Bemba (2006), the traditional instruments such as the ngoni lute played by Mama Sissoko, and the kora played by Toumani Diabate, evoke the memory of Salif Keita’s own ancestor, Sundiata Keita, the warrior king who founded the Manding Empire in the 131 century. Representing a genuine piece of family history, the new recording is the first time Salif’s foster-sisters join him on record for the chorus of the title track. Also appearing on the album is dancehall/reggae great, Buju Banton, who lends his talents on the upbeat track “Ladji.”
The same talented group of musicians who performed on Moffou also join Salif on M’Bemba, including Djeli Moussa Kouyate on guitar, Mino Cinellu on percussion, the charismatic presence of Salif s early mentor, guitarist and arranger, Kante Manfila with Ousmane Kouyate also on guitar. Manfila and Kouyate were both in Les Ambassadeurs, a group which Salif joined in the mid-Seventies.
Fueled by the optimism that his own life has created within him, Keita aims to spread his message of hope through his music, through his actions, and through his words. “Happiness isn’t for tomorrow,” Keita says. “It’s not hypothetical; it starts here and now. . . . Nature has given us extraordinary things. . . . 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 its sons, and fight to build our happiness.”
His 2010 acoustic album La Difference (Universal, 2010) is dedicated to tolerance for albinos. La Difference won Keita one of the biggest musical awards of his career: the Best World Music 2010 at the Victoires de la musique.
Keita’s music blends together the traditional griot music of his Malian childhood with other West African influences from Guinea, the Ivory Coast, and Senegal, along with influences from Cuba, Spain, and Portugal, and an unmistakably overall Islamic sound. Besides the aforementioned guitar, organ, and sax, Keita’s sound also includes traditional African instruments such as the kora, balafon, and djembe, often synthesized and sampled.
For decades Keita has been a force to reckon with, even at the age of 60 there are no signs of fading in his strides.
Happiness isn’t for tomorrow, Keita says. It’s not hypothetical; it starts here and now…Nature has given us extraordinary things…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 its sons, and fight to build our happiness.