The Golden Voice of Africa returns with his best album in a decade
By Salif Keita
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
Salif Keita is my favourite singer. In fact, I’d go as far as to say he’s the best singer alive in the world today, but I don’t want to start a fight with anyone, so it’s best to let you be the judge. Suffice it to say that in the twenty-two years since first hearing Keita incredible voice, I have never encountered another one that equals it.
Salif Keita can grumble and growl like Tom Waits fighting a hyena for a bone one minute and then soar like Pavarotti in his prime the next. The range of voice and emotion at his command is staggering, and like most great singers he makes it look easy. At the age of sixty two, Keita has achieved an ease in his phrasing and delivery that few can rival. To listen to Keita vocalize is akin to hearing the unhurried grace of Sinatra at his most intuitive or Willie Nelson at his most off the cuff and assured. There is no evidence of strain or reaching for a place where he cannot take his voice. Salif Keita has reached the stage in his career where he has nothing to prove and has the absolute confidence that simply allows him to trust his voice and let it sing. To hear Keita is to experience music in its purest, most joyful form. Though he is a great poet and lyricist, one doesn’t need to understand French or any of the African languages he sings in to appreciate the purity of his songs. The emotional reach of his voice transcends language.
Truly, Keita could sing with the sloppiest bar band in the world and elevate their bashings into the stratosphere. And, it must be admitted that Keita has put his name to some fairly dodgy albums in the last few decades. As an artist who’s not been afraid to dabble in funk, hard rock, country and club music, Keita has developed a musical palette that belies one’s usual expectations of African music. If your exposure to music from this continent ends with Paul Simon’s Graceland or The Talking Heads’ Naked, rest assured, Salif Keita’s songs come from an entirely different set of influences. In the same way that music from New York and Nashville or Paris and Athens are different, there is a huge range of melodic traditions and possibilities expressed in African music.
It’s been said that we all have our own crosses to bear in life, and Keita’s lonesome valley to trod was that he was born as an albino in Mali – a country that considered albinoism a curse from the devil. The songs on his new album, ‘La Difference’ explore these superstitions which ruined Keita’s early life. Though Keita was born into royalty with direct links to Sounjat Keita the heroic 13th century warrior prince who established the ancient Malian empire in West Africa, Keita was not allowed to play music growing up due to Mali’s strict caste system. He was then disowned by his own father and kicked out of school which left Keita no choice but to leave his country as soon as he was old enough to do so. He then traveled to Ivory Coast where he did his apprenticeship singing with the seminal West African groups Super Rail Band of Bamako and Les Ambassadeurs before restlessly moving through Paris, London and New York to start a solo career.
From the beginning, Keita has not felt constricted by tradition or listeners’ expectations of what African music should sound like. For the last three decades, he has literally borrowed from all of the world’s music by blending West African styles and instruments with popular music from Europe and North America. Like any good music, it is better experienced than described, but for those curious for definition, Keita’s current style is perhaps best expressed as string music of the highest order. It is symphonic and lush one moment, light and fragile the next. The interplay between strings from various traditions – Lebanese ouds, 21 string koras, and various guitars – capture the swing of Ellington’s best bands and the intimacy of Doc Watson and David Grisman at their absolute peaks. The swirling Arabic textures that Keita has explored throughout his career are filtered through Django Rhinehart/Stephan Grappelli phrases that put one in mind of Paris in 1919. Accordions dance in and out of the mix as blues, country and African highlife inflections provide a bedrock for Keita’s voice to sail over.
‘La Difference’ marks the third acoustic album of an enviable creative streak that began with Mouffou in 2002 and continued with M’Bemba in 2006. After years of restless change, many of his fans who stuck with him through his experiments in funk, rock and disco with producers like Vernon Reid, have celebrated these three albums as a return to his roots. And, while it’s true that the exploratory spirit that lead to his groundbreaking breakthrough album ‘Soro’ in 1988 may have been quelled somewhat as he shifted gears to concentrate on the purity and intensity of his performance, there’s nothing middle of the road about the songs on ‘La Difference.’
Lyrically, Keita still possesses a bite and expresses a poet’s soul as he sings about prejudice, the plight of albinos and ecological crisis in Africa. From a musical perspective, the layered ‘world acoustic string’ sound he’s been pursuing has reached a high water mark. The emphasis on punchy horns and stop and start on a dime rhythms has been subdued in favour of pursuing acoustic meditative melodies that are nevertheless imbued with muscle and grace. In an album full of great tracks, it’s very difficult to pick a highlight, but ‘Folon’ – a track originally recorded in 1995 with a full horn section – is re-imagined here by Keita and American guitarist, Bill Frisell as an acoustic lament that should bring tears to the eyes of even the most crusty of listeners.
As globalization keeps hurtling forward at a breakneck pace and cultures disintegrate and reform, the distance between Nashville and Bamako shrinks a little more every day. That’s something that must make Salif Keita smile. He’d be happy wherever he was and surely find a way to fit in. ‘La Difference’ is one of the greatest releases of his long career, and is without question one of the most passionate and beautifully recorded albums of the year so far. It is a masterpiece that you shouldn’t be living without.
This article also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com