Sierra Nevada World Music Festival 1998

Salif Keita

Keita's soaring voice, inspiring performance ability, as well as his emotionally fueled songs have gained him international star status. Keita's early days in the late 1970s were with a group called Les Ambasadours, based in the Ivory Coast. Success came in 1986 with the release of the huge-selling Soro album. His last recording Folon: The Past was voted one of the ten best records of that year by Tower Pulse. Keita has just finished recording his new album, produced by Vernon Reid. His album is the new African/American music--bringing together musicians from Mali and America. Africa Fête is the premiere of his new band and their musical collaboration.

Salif's name is synonymous with the Mailian Royal Family and griots, ancestral oral poet priests. Salif himself is noble; a direct descendant of the legendary warrior king, Sundjiata Keita, who founded the Mandinka Empire in 1240. Keita's childhood has been the subject of a BBC documentary and is truly the stuff of legend. As the saga of the African anti-hero, Keita's story could scarecely be bettered.

Salif was born albino in a land where that skin is a sin; the great slabs of stone on which albinos would be sacrified along other "troublemakers" still stand just outside his village.

His father, Sina, was so shocked at his birth that he banned both infant and mother from the house. But goodness prevailed, and the father's faith was confirmed by the prediction of the village Imam (spiritual leader) that his son would achieve fame.

The road to Keita's dream was hard. While attending teacher's training school, the singer's weak eyes prevented him from obtaining qualifications. When he turned to music as his refuge, his parents ordered him to leave the house, forcing the teenage Salif to sleep rough in the marketplace of Mali's capital, Barnako, to fulfill his dreams.

Those days, of course, are long gone; the horror that his parents felt at the disgrace to their caste mellowed considerably as their "misfit" son became recognized as a national hero. Fame came swiftly. Salif soon became the singer of the Rail Band, then joined Les Ambassadeurs, taking with him the brilliant guitarist, Kante Manfila. Both of these groups are legendary. Synthesizing their African and Cuban influcences with an awareness of French pop, they were responsible for forging a new national pop in a newly independent county.

Mali's recent transition to democray after years under a repressive regime is celebrated by Salif Keita on his new album Flon, which means "the past." A profound inquisition on the nature of democracy, expressed with the simple sophistication of a haiku, the following lyrics ring with the infectious confidence of a musician at the height of his powers.

In the past, we were like orderlies. We simply took orders. We made no decision ourselves. Even if you though about happiness, even if you were intelligent, you could not expreess yourself. No, no-one can decide for us.

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