A magazine for Africans and friends of Africa...Our Voices, Our Vision, Our Culture

The Mansa of Mali Rocks New York
By Tendai Uhuru
On a crisp October night, dozens were turned away from a jam-packed dance club in downtown Manhattan that could take no more. They had come to pay homage to one of Africa's leading music ambassadors, Salif Keita. He gave New Yorkers a single show, as he blazed his way across the United States to promote his latest album, "Moffou."

Accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, he quietly slipped on stage in the early hours of that evening and delivered a powerful solo performance of "Iniagige" from his new album. He then drove the crowd wild as the full band stormed the stage. Occasionally he backtracked, belting out notable tracks from his earlier albums such as "Tekere" and the classic "Mandjou", but it was his latest album that dominated the sets on that standing-room-only night.

"Sung in Malink and Bambara, 'Moffou' represents a genuine desire to return to my roots," according to Keita. To produce "Moffou," he decided to return to his native Mali, handpick a group of mainly local musicians and put out a sparse, bare-bones album. It marks a significant departure from his recent albums, which were increasingly immersed in electronic synthesisers.

The moffou is a simple flute played in the Sahel region by poor farmers to chase birds away from their crops in the fields. It is affordable to ordinary people, and Keita chose this simplicity and accessibility as the reason to name his album after the instrument.

"I wanted this album to be different," Keita told The AFRican, "I wanted it to take me back to Africa." He spent a lot of time in the Malian capital, Bamako, working on material for the album. He found time to open a nightclub, also named Moffou, to promote local musicians in Bamako.

"Musically I will be based in Bamako," he says. "Since 1978, Ive spent too much time outside the country."

That year, he left his native land, following a successful stint playing in the top hotels of Bamako and fronting popular bands of those times the Rail Band and Les Ambassadeurs. With Les Ambassadeurs, he began marrying West African sounds with those from other regions. He left Bamako with Les Ambassadeurs in 1978, and headed for Abidjan, the capital of Cote D'Ivoire, where he recorded "Mandjou". It became an instant commercial success, and he has since re-recorded it several times. Mandjou is a haunting narration of the history of the Malian people, and an ode to Guinea's first president at independence in 1958, Sekou Toure.

Keita fuses traditional griot music from the West African region - encompassing Cote D'Ivoire, Guinea and Senegal - with flavours from as far off as Cuba, across the Atlantic Ocean. Incessant guitar rhythms, blues organs and saxophones dominate his music. He also relies on traditional instruments such as the kora, balafon and djembe.Salif Keita was born August 25, 1949. As an albino, his childhood was full of ridicule and rejection. In his native lands, albinos are frowned upon and considered cursed.

However, as fate would have it, he was also born an aristocrat. He is a direct descendant of Mansa Sundiata Keita, who in 1240 founded the Malian Empire. His family and community therefore resisted his efforts at becoming a musician, a trade considered suitable only for those of so-called lower classes.

He gained international attention around the early 1980s following the release of the album "Primpin", recorded over a brief period spent in New York in 1980. He returned to Abidjan, but soon left to settle in Paris, among a large community of Malians.

Keita returned to the recording studios in 1987, producing the classic "Soro", which went on to become a massive hit. Keita had joined a renowned group of African musicians who had broken into international stardom such as Senegal's Youssou Ndour, Cameroon's Manu Dibango, Ray Lema, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then known as Zaire), and Nigeria's Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. In 1988 he recorded "Koyan", followed in 1991 by "Amen", the album that made him the first African band leader to be nominated for a Grammy Award. And in 1993, he released the retrospective "Mansa of Mali". "Folon", hailed as a marvel, came in 1995. In 1997, he released "Sosie", a unique album for him as it was sung in French. "Papa" was recorded in New York in 1999 and produced by funk-rock guitarist Vernon Reid.

Keita lists Femi Kuti and Hugh Masekela among the contemporary African musicians he regards as important exponents of the continents music. He mentions Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner and Ray Charles as his influences.

He has worked and collaborated with an array of stars including Joe Zawinul, keyboard player for the fusion group Weather Report, Latin great, Carlos Santana, the Jamaican diva Grace Jones, Cesaria Evora from Cape Verde, and Manu Dibango.While he acknowledges that African rhythm has broken down many barriers, he believes language may prevent the music from breaking into mainstream pop culture as reggae, for instance, has been able to do. "I think language will limit the growth of African music," he says.

Keita also possesses a firm belief in his continent. Even as famine, wars, and economic decline ravage much of Africa, he remains hopeful that the future bodes well for the region. He says he is making his own little contributions. In Bamako he has founded an organization to support and counsel albinos. He has also set up a recording studio in Mali to nurture local talent."I hope that we (Africans) can rebuild Africa together," he says.