Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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SALIF KEITA
Papa
Metro Blue

TAJ MAHAL AND TOUMANI DIABATE
Kulanjan
Hannibal

Afropop tastes best straight up. That doesn't mean devoid of First World influences, which African musicians have been seizing at will since the '20s. It means devoid of the misfired fusions and arty kitsch that undermine so many well-meaning translations back into First World tongues--the Air France keyboards of Francois Breant and Jean-Philippe Rykiel on master singer Salif Keita's 1987 Soro, say, or the flamboyant ecstasies of Spanish flamencoists Ketama on their two Songhai projects with kora god Toumani Diabate.

So if somebody told you the new collaborations by both Malian virtuosos are their finest solo records, would you consider it noteworthy that both involve black Americans rather than white Europeans--jazz-rock-other guitarist Vernon Reid coproducing Keita, folkie bluesman Taj Majal convening with Diabate? This is hardly a surefire cultural formula, as a passel of paternalistic jazzmen have proven. But because Reid and Mahal love pop music, and because Keita and Diabate are bigshots in the world music world, these are equal partnerships. What's more, the Africans need partners. Soro never fulfilled its supposed crossover destiny, and Diabate has a sideman's low-concept soul no matter how fancy his ax--his recent collection of kora duets with Ballaka Sissoko is as New Agey as its title, which is, oh my, New Ancient Strings.

Papa skews Keita's Islamic declamation toward both the metallic drive of Living Colour and the harmolodic vagaries of Reid's earlier unit, Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society. Cut with a Bamako band that includes Diabate's kora and a New York one featuring John Medeski's organ, it has room for a cellist and a programmer but no horns. There's a catchy lead cut that does something like rock, a ballad that evokes "Time After Time," disco rodomontade from Grace Jones, Reid solos and Diabate filigrees. And above all there's Keita, soaring 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.

If Papa remains Keita's record, Mahal earns his top billing. Although he's been talking African diaspora since he showed pop his kalimba in 1972, his world music moves have reflected his West Indian heritage or his Hawaiian residence. Kulanjan is his chance to check out his abiding suspicion that all black musics are one, which he accomplishes with his trademark joie de vivre--roping an unusually light-hearted Malian woman named Ramata into the lead "Queen Bee," accommodating Toumani Diabate's more typical Sahel soul singing, letting Lasana Diabate's balafon go crazy over his crude New Orleans piano vamp, taking John Lee Hooker on another visit to Timbuktu. And throughout he exploits the rippling of his collaborator's harp-lute for esprit rather than spirituality. He and his ancestors have a jamboree. And his extended family makes it happen.

Spin, Sept. 1999