From the vaults: Salif Keita – musician of the world (1997)

Posted: June 13, 2015 by Admin in Africa, Commodification, Cultural studies, Music - lives, Music reviews - records

imagesThe article below is part of our series of reprints from the magazine revolution (1997-2006) , one of the precursors to this blog. It appeared in the ‘Living’ section of issue #3, August/September 1997.

by Susanne Kemp

Everything is political. When you do everything you can to avoid politics, that’s still political.” So says Salif Keita, one of the highlights of this year’s Womad in Auckland.

Unfortunately, Keita is not much known in New Zealand and so unlikely totour here outside appearances like Womad. Yet he is at the forefront of world music, possibly the most rapidly-growing category of music around today.

Rise of African music

African music is the biggest component of world music, a fact that probably owes quite a lot to the way in which it has been promoted by big-name Western artists whose own music had run out of steam. Paul Simon, for instance, dabbled in South African township sounds and managed to revive a flagging career and shift copies of Graceland by the lorry load as well as introduce white middle class America to the music of the downtrodden of Soweto. Peter Gabriel has been more consistent; African influences have been a genuine part of his music since at least his fourth album in 1982. Working with a range of West African artists, most notably Youssou N’Dour, and initiating Womad, he has played a central part in opening up European and North American audiences to the exhilarating sounds of the region.

The fact that so much Western music had run out of steam was crucial to creating the climate whereby artists such as Nigeria’s Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade and then Mory Kante and Youssou N’Dour, from former French colonies such as Senegal, have been big hits in Europe. As Elfyn Griffith of Womad noted back in 1989, “People are disenchanted with Western music. It’s commercialised and vacuous. People want something more alive and vibrant.”

Of course, as African music gains a bigger audience in the West it is far from immune to commercialisation.

Long road

Keita himself has come a long way since his hard apprenticeship , trekking 25 kilometres from his home into Mali’s capital, Bamako, to sing in the markets and live on charity. Being an albino and having poor eyesight, which had also closed his plans to pursue teaching, did not help either.

His break came when he was spotted singing in a nightclub and invited to join the Rail Band, a famous group sponsored by the Mali government. The band performed in one of the few venues in the country, the railway station’s hotel in Bamako. Along with the group’s guitarist Kante Manfila, Keita began developing an electric and partly Cuban-influenced form of Mali music.

Three years of performing six nights a week honed his skills and then, along with Manfila, he jopined Les Ambassadeurs, playing ‘international’ music in a motel and recording five albums which established them at the forefront of modern Mali music. Most significant was 1978’s Mandjou, their first album recorded in relatively hi-tech conditions (in the Ivory Coast capital of Abidjan) and regarded as a classic of modern African music.


In 1984 Keita made the move to Paris which is effectively the centre of the African, especially West African, music industry. Paris is also significant because of the range of musical influences – Islamic singing, traditional griot kora music, Wolof tribal drumming, as well as Latin and jazz. Western studio technology and the musical melting-pot of the city itself have combined to produce some of the most exciting and vibrant music in the world today.

Access to a 48-track studio gave Keita the chance to expand his sound, both incorporating and transcending the traditional aspects and spirit of his music. The 1987 album Soro launched him onto a sell-out European tour and 1989’s Ko-Yan further strengthened his growing reputation.

Next Keita joined up with the legendary Weather Report keyboard player Joe Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Carlos Santana and a set of Paris-based African musicians to record Amen, released in 1991, which takes up some contemporary political issues in West Africa, such as the lack of democracy.


His impact on sections of the more inventive European artists continues to grow. According to sax player Courtney Pine, born and bred in West London, “It’s like this guy walking up to a mountain to find out where he’s coming from in jazz music and all of a sudden he meets a guy who can show him the short cut. Salif opened my eyes to another way, an easier way to get there.”

Keita includes a wide range of Western artists as influences, from Pink Floyd and Hendrix through to the Jackson Five and even the Eagles, although it’s difficult to see how the bland and soporific sounds of the latter are reflected in his exhilarating music.

He sees American and English music as “stripping away the details of African music until the basic rhythms are left. The core of the rhythm is the same.” Of his own work he says, “Musically it’s simple, but rythmicaly it’s complicated.” Not one for the particularists, he also believes “Everyone mixing up with everyone else makes a good sauce.”

Taste it!

Keita’s international albums are fairly readibly available in New Zealand. A good place to start for those wishing to check him out is 1994’s retrospective Salif Keita – the Mansa of Mali.


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