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Salif Keita: Blonde Ambition

How did Mali-born Afropop artist Salif Keita go from riches to rags and back again?

October 12, 2002

How did Mali-born Afropop artist Salif Keita go from riches to rags and back again?

Africa has given the world many wonderful musical artists. Many of them have also been figures of great political controversy. The musician’s ability to move the masses with rhythm echoes a politician’s ability to do the same thing with words.

The power and influence of popular musicians in Africa can often be a threat to its governments — which are often much less popular than Africa’s hitmakers.

When one considers Salif Keita’s background, the connections between music and the politics of Mali — one of the poorest countries in the world — are quite clear. Born in 1949, the musician descended from the founder of Mali’s kingdom in the 13th century — Sundiata Keita.

Yet, Salif Keita’s regal origins had to compete with a more immediate physical trait. He was born an albino — which is considered to be a sign of bad luck in Mali’s culture.

Thus, his early life was attended by physical difficulties (including failing vision) and discrimination against him in Malian society. Though he was of royal birth, Salif Keita’s albinism placed him in the lower rung of society. It was a suffering that has ultimately enriched the world’s musical culture.

In Mali, musicians (or “griots”) are often considered to be of a lower class than those with royal roots. But Salif Keita discovered that he had considerable talent as a musician. By the time he was 18 years old, he had begun playing in bars in Mali’s capital, Bamako — a large port town on the Niger River.

Eventually, in 1969, he joined the “Rail Band” that played the hotel at the city’s main railway station. It was during his time in the Rail Band that Keita first attracted large audiences. He became successful enough to strike out with a new group, Les Ambassadeurs.

Mixing traditional African sounds with the rougher edges of Mali’s soulful electric club music, Les Ambassadeurs proved to be an even more popular combo.

Even Mali’s president, Ahmed Sekou Toure, recognized the band’s talents — and he awarded them national honors. Far from his status as an outcast in Mali’s society as youth, Salif Keita had become one of his country’s most applauded citizens — musical royalty of a sort.

However, Salif Keita’s time as a much-celebrated citizen of Mali was all too brief. Violent unrest in Mali forced him into exile in Ivory Coast — and turned Mali’s beloved Ambassadeurs into “Les Ambassadeurs Internationales.”

Keita moved even further away from Africa in the 1980s, when he resettled in Paris among that city’s large community of expatriate Malians.

He was a vociferous critic of Mali’s unsettled political situation. In spite of greater stability in the country, Keita continues to stir controversy with his strong comments about Mali's government.

Even on Moffou — the introspective new album which has created a resurgence of interest in Salif Keita’s music — there are strong hints of social critique. For instance, the album takes its name from a small flute that is used by African farmers in the drought-stricken Sahel region to keep birds from disturbing their farms.

The music on Moffou is much quieter than many of the more “electrified” albums made by Salif Keita during his long career.

Quiet acoustic numbers featuring only Keita’s voice and guitar (such as “Ana Na Ming”) alternate with complex songs such as “Yamore” and “KouKou,” in which a similar acoustic foundation is layered with electric guitars, woodwinds, percussion and trio of sweet, warm female voices.

In many ways, Moffou combines the best of Mali’s rich musical culture with the broader currents of European pop music. Much of the album has the gentle lilt of a lullaby.

Yet, Salif Keita’s message is not meant to put anyone to sleep, but rather to wake his listeners (and all Africans, especially) to their own positive nature.

As Keita himself writes in the notes of Moffou: “Let’s build the country of our children — and stop taking pity on ourselves.

“Africa is also the joy of livings, optimism, beauty, elegance, grace, poetry, softness, the sun and nature. Let’s be happy to be its sons and fight to build our happiness.”

It’s a fight that Salif Keita, the descendent of a king who was cast down and the raised himself up, has already won.