Salif Keita: Remixes from Moffou

[27 May 2004]

By Christopher Orman

The art, or, rather, the alternate universe of the remix has been going on dubiously since the first notes resonated through the universe. One look at how Richard Berry’s tenuous, lascivious tango “Louie Louie” became a crashing anthem of sexual subversion, amongst other things, reveals the nature of the remix: the need to reincorporate, reinvigorate, to run the gamut of re-‘s running through many dictionaries.

What it does is change the pertinence by moving the argumentative center. A certain track’s meaning remains intact, but its audience and impact gestates. For example, on the recent Bird Up release, where Charlie Parker’s most memorable tracks were incorporated in modern hip-hop frameworks, the bebop base was extended. At the same time, it revealed Parker’s timelessness—how his music, despite epoch and expectations, can and will remain socially invigorating; a measuring stick for modern American music.

It might be contended that samples and remixes only work with non-ephemeral sounds. DJ Cam’s Mad Blunted Jazz worked because he culled sundry sounds from Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. The early success and then failure of US3, A Tribe Called Quest, Gangstarr, and Digable Planets could be tied to the nature of the remix, their subsequent movement away from the pillars of jazz to the dross of the late 1960s/early 1970s jazz-soul recordings. Things don’t work so well when you only use Donald Byrd, especially when you start with Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island”.

Now the remix project has extended its wings. There are various Buena Vista Social Club remix projects, or, in this case, a remix of Salif Keita’s Moffou, which open up a bevy of basic discussions. These are the type of conversations and contentions that go beyond the album’s great grooves (which it has), its depth (which it has), and its ability to interest younger listeners into the music of Africa (which, in conjunction with the VH1 special on Orchestra Baobab, it could).

The main concern revolves around the music itself. Some of the integrity, the grit and circumstances surrounding these sounds, the cathartic cries of Salif Keita, are bowdlerized. This is especially disconcerting given the pure beauty of Keita’s Moffou, probably one of the best albums of 2002. Hell, as ebullient as Federico Gallaino’s mix of “Here” may sound here, Keita’s concepts are all but expunged. It can be easy to accept and relish the opening version of “Moffou”, with the chanting and West African percussion, before realizing that at some point the traditional ideas become dominated. Or, to look at it from an ethnomusicologist perspective, what happens to the stuff Alan Lomax would be preserving here?

Things don’t get any easier when examining the three different—emphasis on different—versions of “Moussoulou”, or the two different versions of “Here”. They are so strikingly unique that one has to return to the original to get an idea of the track’s original intentions and foundation. Here, the brilliance of this particular remix project surfaces: It has enough pleasurable moments that one is filled with wonder at the sheer scintillating qualities of the originals, finding the latent hip-hop elements in Salif Keita’s music. No, scratch that, and reverse it. Reconsider the nature of the sample and reincorporate it. Remixes from Moffou reveals the impact of Africa upon hip-hop. Nothing new. But the only way for listeners to comprehend the spectrum and scope of that cultural assimilation is to hear the original Moffou. In doing so, Salif Keita’s and these various DJs’ talents are linked, their timeline and desires connected in a fold of space, time, and studio gadgetry. Banking on the fact that, through these more palliated forms and formats, young listeners will discover the magic of traditional African music might be too optimistic and naive. There wasn’t a jazz explosion following US3 or Bird Up. Which makes the label’s reasons for releasing this album all the more perplexing, only creating more questions than answers in the polemics about remixes.

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