Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Salif Keita

  • Soro [Mango, 1987] B
  • Ko-Yan [Mango, 1989] B+
  • Amen [Mango, 1991] Neither
  • The Mansa of Mali: A Retrospective [Mango, 1994] A-
  • Folon . . . The Past [Mango, 1995] **
  • Papa [Metro Blue, 1999] A-
  • Moffou [Universal, 2002] ***
  • The Best of Salif Keita: The Golden Voice [Wrasse, 2004] ***
  • M'Bemba [Decca, 2006] B+
  • La Différence [Decca, 2010] ***
  • Un Autre Blanc [Believe/Naive, 2019] A-

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Soro [Mango, 1987]
As he showed those few who heard the sole U.S. release by his Ivory Coast-based Ambassadeurs (on Rounder in 1984), this albino Mali nobleman is one of Africa's great singers. Like his Senegalese neighbor Youssou N'Dour, he's Francophone with Islamic projection, and like anybody this side of Jackie Wilson he falls short of N'Dour's purity and range. But he's old enough to compensate with experience, by which I mean not savvy but feeling and authority. And now, his ambassadorial ambitions largely thwarted, he's making his world pop move solo, recording in Paris with French musicians black and white. Though there's nothing as awkward as the "Rubberband Man" N'Dour committed with similar intentions, the arrangements sacrifice a quantum of groove for dramatic effects that wouldn't sound out of place on an Elton John record, and wouldn't wash there either. The way the choral work calls up the musical interludes of a Hollywood safari movie is one of the record's attractions. Needless to say, an attraction ain't all it is. B

Ko-Yan [Mango, 1989]
Even as an avowed enemy of his nation's caste system, Keita hasn't abandoned his royal responsibilities--he's exhorting Malians, or maybe West Africans, and hoping others will listen. Thus the lack of a lyric sheet is no great loss for world peace. The lead cut on the A, keyed to a Bambara word that means "at one and the same time life, fortune, power, reputation and the devil," and the lead cut on the B, keyed to a Bambara word that "refers at one and the same time to the King, power, alcohol and drugs," would be hard to translate into English not just linguistically but culturally, and except for the bitterly cryptic black protest "Nou Pas Bouger," everything else seems curious international fare. But in compensation, Ko-Yan corrects Soro's melodrama for groove. The music is still very much composed rather than created or spun out. But the production goes lighter on the atmospheric kora colors, the abrupt bursts of horn, the synch-simulated whistles and pans and balafon, with Keita's voice--often in tandem with a strong female chorus that sounds a lot less Hollywood this time--riding the rhythm in a nice compromise with the dance music Keita mastered leading the Ambassadeurs. And in the end this fusion may teach non-Malians as much about the complexities of modernization as his lyrics ever could. Anyway, isn't it pretty to think so? B+

Amen [Mango, 1991] Neither

The Mansa of Mali: A Retrospective [Mango, 1994]
I wonder what a mansa is. Surely nothing so crass as an albino from the desert around Bamako who was ambitious enough to hit NYC back in 1980? But that's who he is and has been, as set on world conquest as Youssou D'Dour himself even if he isn't as good at it. The baloney on this useful introduction isn't the three grand survivals from the failed Eurofusion Soro, which are more likable undercut by simpler stuff, or even the duly selected representative from the Republic of Zawinul, which starts out fairly pretty and gets fairly intense. And it sure isn't the legendary 1978 "Mandjou," 13 leisurely, inevitable minutes an Ambassadeurs fan might buy a whole best-of just to own. It's the three hunks of soundtrack, precisely one of which conjures up any image whatsoever. A-

Folon . . . The Past [Mango, 1995]
Malian world-beat with a pan-Afropop flavor-not-flava ("Africa," "Dakan-Fe") **

Papa [Metro Blue, 1999]
This Vernon Reid coproduction is beyond fusion, crossover, world music, and the rest. The master guitarist is pure polyglot, comfortable anywhere from AOR to funk to harmolodic to aleatory, and after two decades of knocking on Euro-America's door, the master singer is at home in the white world even if he never found the fortune he sought there. So the straightforward rhythms mesh imperceptibly with the traditional instruments Keita is forever rediscovering, and though it's not clear from the credits whether such Bamako big men as Toumani Diabate (kora) and Ousmane Kouyate (guitar) ever occupied the same room as such New York delegates as John Medeski (organ) and Henry Schroy (essential on bass), their spiritual confluence is in the grooves. Above it all Keita soars gravely in Bambara and sometimes English, his sand-blasted yearning finally kept in focus by a production that knows the difference between embellishing and bedizening. Almost as much an outsider in Mali and Senegal as in France or the U.S., he's finally arrived at a style that's indigenous everywhere. Which is what he always wanted. A-

Moffou [Universal, 2002]
doing his duty to Malian beauty ("Yamore," "Madan") ***

The Best of Salif Keita: The Golden Voice [Wrasse, 2004]
Two CDs' worth of his Island catalog reshuffled for credible grandeur--Soro improved, Ko-Yan almost untouched ("Nou Pas Bouger--Don't Move Us," "Tekere"). ***

M'Bemba [Decca, 2006]
One of Keita's better conceived and executed albums presents a familiar vexation to the world music appreciator: exactly how to relate to a supremely expressive voice singing about we-haven't-the-foggiest. One attraction of beat-driven Afropop is that it runs this question over with a herd of kudu, as in Keita's years with the Ambassadeurs, a dance band and proud of it. Continuing the big man's recent return to Malian instrumentation, musical overseer Kante Manfila rewards connoisseurs of pop arrangement for its own sake--traditional soloists piling on their flourishes at the close of "M'Bemba," accelerating repetitions at the climax of "Moriba," the look-mama-no-synth washes of the one I know translates "I'm Going to Miss You" because it's in French rather than Bambara, the hard grooves of "Kamoukie" and "Ladji" to stir the blood. When Keita tacks on a "keyboards and programming" dance remix, it's just one more fillip. B+

La Différence [Decca, 2010]
Said difference, while marginal, est en français ("La Différence," "Ekolo d'Amour"). ***

Un Autre Blanc [Believe/Naive, 2019]
Keita, who turns 70 in August, hasn't released an album since 2010 and may never make another. But his voice remains a startling thing, and this grabbed me the moment he launched a wordless shout through a female chorus half a minute in. Then he kept it up for an hour--warm here, intense there, surprisingly mellow for his age whether gruff or sweet. Beyond the ongoing miracle that is Youssou N'Dour, I haven't heard a West African vocal showcase to compare since Keita's own 1999 album Papa, and this is better. "Were Were" is designed to grab you as it did me, and two other standouts feature guests--Angelique Kidjo adding sugar to "Itarafo," where Parisian rapper MHD also takes a verse, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo doing what comes with practice practice practice on the blatantly AutoTuned "Ngamale." But that ain't all--not a track falters. So what got him going? Although a title that translates "another white" indicates that he's speaking out for his fellow albinos, still oppressed as freaks or worse in many African cultures, the lyrics his label sent me are standard sincere African humanism. I'm not even sure how many songs are in Bambara and how many in French. But I am sure that relistening in pursuit of this riddle has been no burden. A-

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