Skip to page content

Salif Keita

About this Artist

SALIF KEITA came into the world both cursed and blessed. With each new ordeal came its salvation; with each new obstacle, some inspired ruse or unstinting strength to continue his path. And here lies the enigma. For example, how could he accept being disowned by a father who refused the inevitability of an albino son? What reply could he give to face the hostility of his own caste when he, a Keita, chose to become a musician? The domain he was entering was strictly forbidden to the Mandingo nobles to whom he belonged. If living means knowing how to solve paradoxes, then Keita is more alive than any of us. Having black parents, but being born white; bearing both a king's name and the burden of a beggar's fate… those are extremely discordant experiences, capable of either destroying a soul or of making it invincible. Yet with Keita things didn't stop there. This miraculous, wild, and solitary survivor also became the most emblematic artist in a whole continent. And today, with the appearance of his new album M'Bemba, he has established himself as the artisan of a renaissance in traditional African sounds, even though he's spent the best part of his career elsewhere, in Europe and the United States, in search of his musical salvation.

In the Sixties, when he made his debuts in the Rail Band and the Ambassadeurs, the two most influential orchestras on the local scene in Mali, African music was undergoing the greatest transformation in its entire history. Carried by the inspiration of cultural emancipation and submitting to the outside attractions of modern trends from America and Europe, the music was changing all the more quickly due to the importing of new instruments - especially amplified guitars - and the new technology capable of recording them. Salif took to this unstable, breathtaking climate like a fish to water. His voice, a baroque, ultra-powerful organ whose muscles he had developed chasing larks and baboons from the family's maize crops, was already the most magnetic instrument in the country. His thirst for new horizons was insatiable. In addition, he had a taste for meeting new people. His encounter with Kanté Manfila, the guitarist from Guinea, was one of the most profitable. In 1972, it was under Manfila's wing - he was leading the Ambassadeurs du Motel band at the time - that Salif took refuge after leaving the Rail Band, who were residents at the Buffet de la Gare in Bamako. Unlike the Rail Band, whose repertoire was made up mostly of traditional Mandingo songs, the Ambassadeurs flattered all kinds of genres, with a predilection for Cuban music even though they also favored French and English pop, American soul, Argentinean tango, and accordion-waltzes. Salif quickly grew - too quickly in a Mali where he was already beginning to feel cramped. In 1979, still with Manfila, he went into exile in Abidjan - then the hub of West African music - and recorded "Mandjou," the first Mandingo hit of the modern era. He then went to Washington, where Manfila and Salif produced "Primpin," a song whose words were as scandalous ('alcohol' and 'drugs' were in the lyrics!) as the sound was revolutionary. The renegade became a star, and in 1987 his album Soro established the Afro-Pop concept. Four years later, Amen, with appearances by Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, and Carlos Santana, showed how perfectly Salif had become acclimatized in the land of contemporary music's great artists.

"My approach to rock, jazz, or soul was a necessity. For someone self-taught like me, playing with Carlos Santana or Joe Zawinul meant rapid progress. Today, that's what allows me to play the music of my country with more control, more assurance and depth," says Salif. It's true that, since Moffou in 2002, a second career has begun for him. That record, where he renewed acquaintance with his old accomplice Kanté Manfila, also marked the beginning of his association with producer Jean Lamoot. Certified gold in France, Moffou in fact anticipated the renaissance of classical Mandingo music and its major instruments, like the lute called the n'goni, or the balafon (an ancestral xylophone) and the percussion instrument called a calabash, all mandatory ingredients in any West African production today. Titles like "Madan" or "Moussolou" also forged a new aesthetic in which the contemporary sound-environment sublimates the original textures, no longer overwhelming them as so often in the past.

And yet Moffou represented only one step in this achievement; it sketched a return to Salif's roots, and this return is only now put into full effect with M'Bemba, the first of all his albums to be recorded in Mali. Lamoot is in charge, and there are some of the musicians featured on the previous album. Among the most loyal of the faithful are Kanté Manfila, the guitarist Djiely Moussa Kouyate, the kamele ngoni player Harouna Samake, and Ousmane Kouyate, the legendary guitarist from the Ambassadeurs. A M'Bemba is an 'old one', the grandfather called on in spirit by Salif as a witness to the intolerance and lack of generosity shown by a part of traditional Mandingo society. It is in this way that Salif Keita, the rebel and taboo-breaker, the one cursed for infringing the laws of his caste, has returned to the terrain of his adversaries: tradition. M'Bemba is the work of an artist who has been singularly mistreated by life without ever falling into resignation; for 35 years he has been striving to make peace with himself, and create unity, to solve his paradoxes: an artist declaring, with the immense sincerity that has always been with him, that this has finally been achieved.