Salif Keita Biography

25 August 1949, Djoliba, Mali. Born into one of Mali’s most distinguished families, albino vocalist/composer Keita can trace his descent directly back to Soundjata Keita, who founded the Mali empire in 1240. He originally wished to become a teacher, but unemployment at the time was high, so he switched to music. In the west, musicians are often thought of as dissolute and irresponsible; in Mali, for the son of a royal family to go into a job that was traditionally the preserve of lower castes was virtually unthinkable. Keita’s decision caused a storm - he was dismissed from school, and formed a trio with his brother, playing in Bamako nightclubs. In 1970, he was invited to join the Rail Band, playing in the buffet of the Station Hotel in Bamako. Three years later he switched to the Rail Band’s main rivals, Les Ambassadeurs, who were playing what he considered to be a more modern music, with a greater range of outside influences. With the help of guitarist Kanté Manfila, he further extended the band’s range by incorporating traditional Malian rhythms and melodies into their existing repertoire of Afro-Cuban material. Fortunately for today’s African music audience, these early experiments were captured on three superb 1977 albums - Les Ambassadeurs Du Motel (Son Afrique 1977), Les Ambassadeurs De Bamako Vol. 1 (Son Afrique 1977) and Les Ambassadeurs De Bamako Vol. 2 (Son Afrique 1977).

By 1978, the reputation of Les Ambassadeurs had spread beyond Mali throughout Francophone West Africa, and that year Keita was made an Officer of the National Order of Guinea by President Sekou Toure, one of the few African statesmen of that time to give real encouragement and support to African musicians working to preserve and develop traditional music and culture. In response, Keita composed the hugely successful ‘Mandjou’, which told the history of the Malian people and paid tribute to Sekou Toure. Following the song’s success, Keita took Les Ambassadeurs to Abidjan, capital of the Cote D’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), the then music centre of Francophone West Africa. From Abidjan, Keita was determined to forge an international career, and duly renamed the band Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux/Internationales. In 1980, he took three members of the new line-up to the USA, where he recorded Wassolon-Foli, blending electric reggae with acoustic Malian folk-song.

In 1986, following a dispute between Keita and Manfila, Les Ambassadeurs split, with Keita going on to lead a new outfit, Super Ambassadeurs. In 1987, he effectively disbanded Super Ambassadeurs to pursue a solo career, debuting with the astonishing rock-flavoured album Soro, recorded in Paris (his new home) and successfully fusing traditional Malian music with hi-tech electronics and western instrumentation. The marriage of influences, which all but the most hidebound traditionalists welcomed as a positive step forward for Malian music, was further developed on the 1990 album, Ko-Yan. Its successor, Amen, was recorded the following year with the aid of jazz musicians Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul, with guitar work by Carlos Santana. However, the reception afforded both was lukewarm, and his live performances of this period were judged to be wildly erratic. 1995’s Folon, produced by Wally Badarou, represented something of a return to form, with the title track and a revised version of ‘Mandjou’ his most outstanding songs since 1987’s Soro.

Keita relocated to the Blue Note Records subsidiary Metro Blue for his next major label release, 1999’s Papa. Surprisingly he eschewed the traditional approach of Folon in favour of a slick, pop-orientated sound. The 2002 follow-up Moffou was a much improved offering, with Keita’s sublime vocals gliding over the top of a beautifully poised blend of Malian roots music and modern production techniques.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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