Salif Keita ‘Un Autre Blanc’ CD (Naïve/Believe) 4/5

This marks something of a watershed moment in that it is reputedly the very last album by the giant of West African music, Salif Keita, and a self-produced one at that. The gargantuan output of the ‘Golden voice of Mali’ spreads over five decades of glorious music, both as a lead singer of the Ambassadeurs and later as a solo artist, but he really came to the attention of the Western musical press as a result of his 1987 opus, ‘Soro’, that fused synthesizers with West African roots music. Thereafter, Keita has pursued a pan-African musical crusade and this latest, and purportedly his last offering, continues in the same vein. That landmark recording of ‘Soro’ is alluded to in part on the atmospheric and layered keyboards of, ‘Syrie’, where synthesizers replace horns and the female chorus supports that rasping lead vocal that has become the signature of Salif Keita, and a song in support of the plight of the Syrian people. So piercing are the leader’s naturally high-pitched vocals that they are guaranteed not to leave the listener indifferent and that is most certainly the case on the opener, ‘Were Were’. Recorded by Jean-Philippe Rykiel, the French connection with ‘Soro’ remains intact and Keita has long been a resident of Paris, which was the de facto capital of world roots music in the 1980s. On this new album, a number of guest African musicians lend a hint of diversity to matters and include Angélique Kidjo and French-African rapper MHD. A real favourite is the pared down acoustic number, complete with balafon and koro, on, ‘Diawara Fa’ and supplying the vocals is Nigerian singer Yemi Alade, while the gospel chorus of South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo can be heard on one of the final numbers, ‘Gnamale’.

Salif Keita enjoyed a resurgence of success in the noughties with the critically acclaimed, ‘Moffou’ (2002) and, ‘La Différence’ (2009), the latter of which won first prize in the world roots category at the 2010 ‘Les victoires de la musique’ awards. As an albino himself, Keita has continually fought for the plight of others living with the condition, resulting in a documentary by actress Lupita Nyong’o and creating his own foundation in 2005. Indeed his daughter now runs a charity which has close connections to the UN and their International Albinism Awareness Day. A more eclectic approach surfaces on a duet with Ivory Coast reggae singer Alpha Blondy on, ‘Mansa Fo La’, a genre Keita is ideally suited to, while the gentler acoustic guitar side is reflected on the lovely, ‘Tiranke’. Rhythm guitar and talking drum combine on the mid-tempo, ‘Tonton’, with lead vocal to the fore. If this is indeed to be Salif Keita’s last ever recording, then at the very least he goes out exemplifying why he is one of the greatest ambassadors and exponents of a pan-African sound and a musician who has successfully embraced traditional folk and modern instrumentation. For those wishing to pursue the career of Salif Keita, the Franco-German cultural channel Arte will be screening a concert on 28 January, and the singer will be present on 16 April as part of the Banlieues Bleues Festival in Gonesse.

Tim Stenhouse