I have mixed feelings about Salif Keita. I admire the voice that is his crowning glory, but the arrangements that he lends it to have often left me cool. I’m appreciative rather than adoring.
He was part of the 1980s diaspora of African pop that helped to kick-start Europe’s love affair with Malian musicians, and scraps of the ‘80s have hung around him ever since. A significant number of the people who currently buy, review, and judge albums from the world music sections of music stores were forming their tastes in African music back then, and the labels still like to cater to that audience. The sound has coagulated into a scab that won’t go away. Even today, in M’Bemba, you can still hear traces of it.
Keita’s voice is strange in that it seems to have no breaking point. Other singers sing, and as you listen to their voices you can guess when they will reach a certain moment where they’ll have to stop, turn the note around, and drive it back home for a rest. But when Keita opens his mouth, then the sound goes out like an inflexible arrow. If he had enough breath he could send it through the stratosphere and startle passing Martians.
His last album, Mouffou, was an acoustic effort after years of more electrified instrumentation, and the reviewers received it with excitement. Reading the reviews, I sometimes had the uncomfortable feeling that I was watching Eurocentric critics exert gentle pressure on an African musician, rewarding him for sounding rural and tribal. On the other hand, Keita had been heading toward a more regional, less electrified mandinka sound for some time, moving away from the Latin-inspired styles that had formed the basis for his pop successes with Les Ambassadeurs. Those reviewers were right: the acoustic arrangements framed his voice and gave it room to sail. Mouffou has got backbone.
M’Bemba follows a similar acoustic path. It starts with the pliable, liquid ripple of guitars and lutes, and a chorus of three women chanting, then Keita’s voice shoots over the top and we’re away. This song sets the tone for the rest of the album. Background instruments (many of them played by the same musicians who collaborated with him on Mouffou) move to easy melodies and his voice provides elaboration and punctuation, launching itself into cries that quiver tautly in the air.
In “Laban”, the chorus of women chant to a regular beat and Keita is the irregular, the wild card shuddering between them. “Calculer”, with its dance beat and ringing waterfalls of notes, takes him back to Latin-African pop. At the end of the album, “Calculer” turns up again, remixed in a way that adds nothing to the original. The powers that be must have told themselves that the music-buying, club-going Youth Of Today don’t like acoustic. Electronic noises have replaced percussion, and a keyboard handclap bleat bips around Keita’s voice, pushing it down to the same level as the instruments. If you ever want to tell Salif Keita that remixes do him no favours, here’s your evidence.
The title song, which is dedicated to one of Keita’s royal ancestors, brings in a guest kora from the wonderful Toumani Diabate, whose presence is always welcome. But as far as gut impact goes, it doesn’t match the song that follows it, “Moriba”, a dark and atypical Keita composition. The female voices become tense, the percussion gives off a shiver, and the guitar turns the same series of notes over and over, entranced, so low and persistent that you almost feel sick listening to it. “Moriba” crawls with a loping, lazy sense of threat. It’s the song you’d put in your Malian horror movie shortly before the monster reveals itself.
I asked my resident layman what he thought of M’Bemba, and he said, “Not bad.” After a pause, he confessed that none of the songs really grabbed his attention. I feel much the same way. On its own terms, M’Bemba has some good moments (the melancholy loveliness of “Tu Vas Me Manquer”, the weird, doomed roll of “Moriba”, the instruments all grooving together at the end of “Yambo”) but if it didn’t have The Voice sending out its goosepimple power, then I’d be more dismissive of it. As usual, I’m admiring. But not adoring. African and African-Latin American music has been a staple of the world music business for years. There are less familiar sounds out there. Perhaps you should try them instead of M’Bemba.