« All my hope goes with you
Time for crying has not come yet, Mandjou
Let Allah cover Mandjou with gold
Everyone believes in you
Mandjou, truth is also a symbol of pride »
Born into a noble family, Salif Keita extols Guinean leader Sekou Touré nicknamed Mandjou. Keita upturns the tradition that decrees that a nobleman cannot praise another person like a griot. Mandjou is an incredible twelve-minute long epic that becomes West Africa’s first Pan-African hit. Released in 1978, this song stands as a true achievement. It was recorded in Abidjan, where most of his orchestra ie Les Ambassadeurs, now renamed Ambassadeurs Internationaux, are located, having fled Mali’s shaky politics.
As the lead singer of the orchestra led by Manfila Kanté, Salif gets a lot of credit for Mandjou’s success. He moves away from the Bamako fame he had already acquired, and aims at reaching new audiences. Like his vocal model Guinean griot singer Sory Kandia Kouyaté, Salif is profoundly invested in the aesthetics, praise and vocabulary of the griot. This monumental song paves the way for some kind of afro-pop success. Congas play a Cuban theme while the horn section gently swirls around while being deeply rooted in the Mande country’s red rock.
From Abidjan, Salif travels to the USA in 1980 where he records two albums with modern production. He also travels to Europe and finally settles down in Paris in 1984 while the Ambassadeurs Internationaux are on a slow decline back in Côte d’Ivoire. After a dozen years spent as lead singer for both the Rail Band and Les Ambassadeurs, Salif goes solo.
In 1987, his vocal genius shines bright on « Soro », an album that fuses African music with Western productions values, enhanced by machines and synthesizers. This record clearly indicates the birth of a new genre, tagged as « world music » by British producer Joe Boyd.
One of the record’s highlights, Cono flies high above its era, showcasing Salif’s vocal prowess, delicate and pure. Synthesizers and congas rejoice in the background. François Bréant’s wide production allows Salif’s mandingo’s lyricism and natural eloquence to breathe.
Two years later, in 1989, Nou pas bouger is another triumph in French speaking Africa and Caribbean, taking full advantage of electronic programming, production and recording. This song stands as a fierce reminder of African migrants’ stark conditions in the West. This title is an ode to their dignity and resistance in their quest to integrate themselves in Europe and everywhere they migrate. Salif’s words speak volumes :
« In the days of slavery
In the days of colonialism
It was not their father’s war
It was not their mother’s war
Now they want us to go back home »
Released on the« Ko-Yan » album, this song tells stories Salif knows well. Living in Montreuil, a Paris suburb that is a hub of the Malian community in Europe, he knows the sacrifices and efforts they have to make in order to be fully recognized away from their homeland.
In 1991, Lony is one of the « Amen » album’s highlights. It tells how one acquires wisdom and knowledge in the Mande country, the most important of which is one’s self-knowledge. Contemplative and peaceful, keyboards and percussions act once more as an ideal outlet for Salif’s seductive voice, gaining him new fans with this new record.
In 1995, on Folon (« The past »), Salif himself plays guitar. This haunting song confronts tradition and modernity, past and present, community and the individual. Salif sings of how much room is left for personal expression. Piano player Jean-Philippe Rykiel plays the keyboard and participates in the arrangements and production on this song, which stands as a true Salif classic. As an artist, he can express himself more directly than before, as a result of the introspective process undertaken with « Soro ». He calmly sings:
« Before, we were just doing what we were told
We only received orders
We did not decide
Even if you think about happiness
Even if you were smart
You could not tell anything
We did not care
Now, no one can decide for us
Because we don’t care anymore »
Released on the eponymous album, Folon is one of his best songs in a decade. Salif closes up the decade with « Papa », a less striking effort than the aforementioned albums.
Salif returns a few years later with 2002’s « Moffou », a first rate album. Opening up the album, Yamore, his duet with Cesaria Evora is a natural union between two of Africa’s most beautiful voices that mingle perfectly. They share the same emotions and feeling, having undergone similar sufferings, skin colour and social maladjustments for Salif, and being a woman from a remote island for Cesaria. A true melancholic light is shed on this song with its Afro-Cuban influences. The accordion brings in a nostalgic mood, with “saudade” intonations, a mixed feeling of regret and desire that can be found all over Atlantic Africa.
With its upbeat tempo, Madan is a perfect afro-pop song, a true gem to dance to. From its vocal harmonies to its infectious beat and virtuoso traditional playing, this effervescent song conveys a delightful and simple rhythm of seduction.
Three years later, Calculer is one of « M’Bemba »’s best songs. This album is his second acoustic record in a row. Both Harouna Samaké’s kamelen ngoni and Mino Cinelu’s percussions are irresistible, but Salif’s acoustic guitar interactions between Manfila Kanté and Ousmane Kouyaté, his former Ambassadeurs colleagues, steal the show.
Spiritual and laid back, Bobo stands as a hymn to true happiness with some deeply meaningful French lyrics. His moving interpretation evokes the great mandingo tradition to which he belongs. He ends the decade with another acoustic gem, « La différence » released in the fall of 2009.
A staple of his repertoire, Seydou is dedicated to Malian stylist Chris Seydou who showed the world the secrets of bogolan’s cloth. Like Seydou, Salif significantly enhanced the recognition of Mali’s great cultural heritage. As an albino, Salif worked hard to have the difference in his skin colour accepted. He’s one of the main actors working for the albino condition’s recognition.
« I’m black, my skin is white and I like it, that’s my difference. I’m white, my blood is black, I love it, that difference is so beautiful » he sings on the eponymous track, a hymn for tolerance. He has stepped away from the servile praises he sang when he began his international career with Mandjou back in 1978. He has embraced his artistic form, always aiming at some universal form of music.
Recorded in a couple of hours at the Radio Television Ivoirienne’s studio in Abidjan, these five tracks belong to some of the most memorable music released in West Africa in the 1970’s. The record’s name, Mandjou deeply resonates in this region and beyond.
With the help of Senegalese record pioneer Ibrahima Sylla and French producer François Bréant, Salif mixes its « modernized folklore » with the latest electronics in a state of the art Paris studio. A true artistic and commercial revelation, this record helps to establish a new era for African music, now labelled as « world music ».
With the help of the bold Nou pa bouger, Salif confirms his new position as a leading voice of a more global African music scene, in the wake of world music’s boom. Salif surfs easily on this new wave, enhanced by the cd’s digital revolution. « Programmed keyboards » and other « rhythmic concepts » are thrown in the mix, highlighting Salif’s unique voice.
Helped with a modern version of his classic Primpin and the amazing Lony, this third solo album crowns Salif as one of the main figure of the afro-pop revolution. Be it in Africa, Japan, America or Europe, Salif now tours around the globe. A Joe Zawinul’s Los Angeles production, this album opens up new horizons for him, with jazz, rock and pop influences.
The past remains an endless source of inspiration for Salif. Recorded between Paris and London, « Folon » offers new versions of classics such as Mandjou, with the help of Malian keyboards wizard Cheick Tidiane Seck. He sets up his own groove, followed by the mighty drummer Mokhtar Samba. Connected to a new reality, Salif dedicates Mandela to the newly elected South African president.
Salif goes back to his childhood and his acoustic roots with a tremendous result. Pure and intense, « Moffou » (the name of a Mandingo rural flute) shows real sweetness and emotion. Fully organic in its production, with Guy N’Sangue’s killer bass lines, this record gives even more room to Salif’s voice and its female vocal harmonies. It stands as one of the best African records of the decade.
More romantic and optimistic in its tone, this album is inspired by his relationship with the Niger River. Salif sings about his own life, his relationships, and his love life in an intimate setting, thus distancing himself from the clichés usually associated with Africa. In the wake of « Moffou », this record does not feature neither drums nor keyboards, a move away from his productions from the 1980’s and 1990’s.
Third volume of an acoustic trilogy, « La Différence » conveys strong natural accents. It seeks to present the current environmental tragedy in Africa and to the indifference around this issue to the world. Highlighted by the title track, Salif also sings about his albinism, with strong vocal emotions.
Photo by Lucille Reyboz