African Music Encyclopedia

 

Salif Keita

 

photo of Salif Keita taken by Jimmie Wing Salif Keita, born in 1949 in Djoliba, is sometimes called the Golden Voice of Africa. He is a direct descendent of Sundiata Keita, the Mandinka warrior king who founded the Malian empire in the 13th century. Born an albino - a sign of bad luck - Keita was shunned and ostracized by his family and community alike. His poor eyesight also contributed to his personal sense of alienation. In 1967 he moved to Bamako where he began playing in nightclubs with one of his brothers. Two years later he joined the 16 member, government sponsored Rail Band that played at the Bamako railway station's Buffet Hotel de la Gare - a very choice gig at the time. In 1973 he left the Rail Band along with Kante Manfila (guitarist, composer, and leader of the band) to join Les Ambassadeurs.

By 1977, with Keita and Les Ambassadeurs reputation extending beyond the boundaries of Mali, he was awarded the National Order of Guinea by President Ahmed Sekou Toure. In return, Keita composed Mandjou, telling the history of the Mali people and praising Sekou Toure. This hauntingly beautiful song features Keita's typical sound of guitar, organ, and sax. To see him perform it concert is an occasion you will never forget.

Due to increasing political unrest, Keita left Mali in the mid-'70s for Abidjan, capitol of Cote D'Ivoire (the Ivory Coast), the other members of the band followed suit and they changed the name of the band to Les Ambassadeurs Internationales. By 1984 Keita had relocated to Paris in order to reach a wider, more European audience, where he joined other African stars like Mory Kante, Toure Kunda, Tabu Ley Rochereau, Ray Lema, Papa Wemba, and Manu Dibango among many others. He now lives in the Montreuil section of Paris among the some 15,000 Malians there.

Keita's music blends together the traditional griot music of his Malian childhood with other West African influences from Guinea, the Ivory Coast, and Senegal, along with influences from Cuba, Spain, and Portugal, and an unmistakably overall Islamic sound. Besides the aforementioned guitar, organ, and sax, Keita's sound also includes traditional African instruments such as the kora, balafon, and djembe, often synthesized and sampled.


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