Salif Keita,
(Universal, 2002)

My interest interest in the African country of Mali was kindled by two very impressive novels set in that country: T. Coraghessan Boyle's Water Music and the epic saga Segu by Maryse Conde. It opened up an unknown and unexpected world of Moorish caravan traders, cattle breeding nomads, tribes farming the more fertile lands and indigenous kingdoms in which the Islamic culture of North Africa merged with the heritage of black Africa. Mali is huge, stretching from the Sahara in the north to the rain forests of equatorial Africa in the south. In its deserts lie the ruins of fabled Timbuktu and along the banks of the Niger River a vast array of tribes and nations has settled.

What Boyle and Conde have done through literature, Salif Keita does through music. His latest album Moffou is proof of that.

Keita's musical career stretches over nearly four decades and is as varied and dramatic as his country's history. He hails from a noble family of the Mandingo. Under normal circumstances this would have meant a life of privilege and relative prosperity, if it were not for the affliction he was born with: Salif Keita is an albino, regarded a curse in Mandingo tradition. The descendant of the legendary prince Sounjata, founder of the Mali Empire that covered much of West Africa, was shunned and oustracized. Finding only solace in books and music, he was drawn to the griots, wanderings bards and keepers of the age-old oral traditions of Mali.

This was an unacceptable choice for an aristocrat and Keita left his birthplace for the capital Bamako. Teaming up with the Guinean musician Mory Kante, he embarked on a chequered musical career that took him to the Ivory Coast, New York, France and back again to Mali. This peripathetic life exposed him to an array of musical influences, which he tried to fuse into a unique style. It also earned him the ire of critics, who accused him of straying from his roots. Since 1997, Keita has more or less returned permanently to Mali and it seems that also musically he has retraced his roots.

Moffou is named after the club he has founded in Bamako. The word refers to a Malian peasant's flute. The album's collection of accoustic performances is in Bambara and Mandingo, the two most important languages of Mali, French and Portuguese. The result is an heirloom of African music. It is a careful production; even the case in which the CD comes is a beautiful piece of artistry, combining photographs and figurative decorations.

It is also a political statement by a true pan-African for whom humanism is the overriding and enduring value governing his outlook on the world: at the same time rejecting all the ugliness with which the dark continent has, unfortunately, become associated, and calling for an optimistic awakening. As one commentator had it, Moffou is "100% African inspiration."

The opening number, "Yamore," performed together with Cesaria Evora, introduces us to the delicate timbre of Keita's voice. Two ballad-like songs, "Souvent" -- at three minutes, the shortest composition -- and especially the poetic "Ana Na Ming," are equally powerful. The latter is a highly personal fantasy that sprang to Keita's mind during a solitary stay on an island. "Iniagige" starts with a long guitar intro followed by a lamenting vocal performance by Keita. But there is also room for the "other Africa" -- the energy and power of its dance music, with its often blatantly carnal themes. The Rumba on "Madan" and "Baba" virtually explodes through the speakers into your living room. Slightly more subdued but just as infectuous is "Mossoulou." "Koukou" takes everything from the flexibility of Keita's voice, augmented by the background vocals. The lengthy closing number "Here" could easily be the final number played in Keita's Bamako dance club at the crack of dawn, after a night of celebrating Mali's musical legacy.

There is probably no such thing as "authentic African music," but I imagine that with Moffou, Salif Keita comes pretty close.

- Rambles
written by Carool Kersten
published 19 April 2003

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