Rail Band of the Train Station Hotel, Ambassadeurs of the Motel of Bamako, Ambassadeurs Internationaux, and lately, Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux: so many bands that enabled Salif Keita to ascend the steep steps to world fame. Not only do their names suggest a quest, a thirst for mobility and travel, they translate also his burning desire, as a person with albinism, the white man with the deep soul of Black Africa, to escape from a society that was denying him his full rights as a human being. Paradoxically, the names of these bands also express Salif Keita’s uncompromising pride of belonging to Mali and Manden, the legendary land of his birth, whose captivating Humanism he has been championing around the world for several decades now.
But how can one speak about Salif Keita the poet without borrowing his own words? From a Parisian recording studio in 1986, he loudly proclaimed: “Sina, O Sina, i den to tò le jamanakè do”/ Sina, O, Sina, your son is lost far away from home.” Five years later, not only this son of Sina the Master hunter and sweet Nassira Keita had not lost his way, he only had reassuring words for his Spiritual Teacher: “O, Karamoko, taama diyara”/ “O, Master, my wanderings have borne fruits.”
Having left at a very young age his native Djoliba in the late sixties, first village chosen to be rebuilt by the American US AID right after Mali’s independence, the traveling bird of Mandé has gone around the world, safely perching, as he said, on one tall tree, that of Knowledge, Lony, where the rocks thrown by mean people could not reach him.
And 40 years after his delightful and ageless Mandjou (1978), let’s recall some of the many jewels this master-wordsmith, the Malian King Midas, has chiseled for us: Soro (1987), Amen (1991), Folon (1995), Papa (1998), Moffou (2002), La Différence (2009) et Talé (2012). And so many memorable collaborations: Joe Zawinul, Steve Hillage, Jean-Philippe Rykiel, Carlos Santana, Cesaria Evora, Wayne Shorter, Ibrahim Maalouf, Vernon Reid/Living Colour, Philippe Cohen Solal, and of course, Esperanza Spalding. Let’s not forget his many hits remixed and popularized even further by world-renowned DJs such as Funk Mob, Frédéric Galliano, Martin Solveig and Luciano.
Salif Keita is one of 3 or 4 major figures who established Mali as one the countries richest in music in the world. His quicksilver voice is steeped in centuries old tradition , but his sense of style , innovation and grace has illuminated a 40+ year career of sublime recordings and inspiring performances. Justin Adams (Robert Plant/Tinariwen)