Salif Keita: La Différence

Photo by Richard Dumas

The sound is so steady and so fluid that it might have turned to mush if it didn't have so many strong and piquant things bearing it up.

Salif Keita

La Différence

Label: Decca
US Release Date: 2010-06-08
UK Release Date: 2010-02-08

Last time I reviewed a Salif Keita album, I was so-so about it. Months later, I got attached to the seventh song, "Yambo", and from there on my opinion changed. Why? Because I saw Keita perform in the interim. I thought he was wonderful. Following that show, at first the album reminded me of him, live, walking energetically across the stage, but after a while it reminded me of itself, of the last time I played it, and I soon stopped consciously associating the memory of the performance with the music and instead began associating the music with my past memories of the music, and the pleasure I had taken in the live show became, partly, pleasure taken in the music itself, without the show, or with less of the show -- just a faint image left of a tall man in a boubou taking a single step. Anyway, long story short: I was looking forward to La Différence.

It is a softer album than M'Bemba -- no dance pieces, no arresting cries, nothing that leaps up and jerks you around, shouting "Pay attention HERE! No, HERE!" -- which makes it a more coherent work, I think. It's an album that slips into a swooning groove and rumbles around inside until it ends. The sound is so steady and so fluid that it might have turned to mush if it didn't have so many strong and piquant things bearing it up -- Keita's singing for one, the tang of the kamel ngoni's plucked string for another -- noises that can glide without being smooth, that retain a sharpness, a bristliness, like dog hair that never lies down completely no matter how often you brush it.

Born in 1949, based in France and Mali, Keita has become a fixture in West African music seen from abroad. First he sang with the Super Rail Band in Bamako, then he was part of a rival group, Les Ambassadeurs, and then, having moved from West Africa to Paris, he pursued a solo career. That was in the 1980s. In the '90s, he shifted away from trumpets and '80s Afropop synthesisers to a style that was barer, acoustic, with a clearer emphasis on traditional music and on his voice, which is a majestic thing. La Différence, with its Mande roll, its sweeping orchestral violins, its balafon, could be regarded as a meeting place between those two kinds of influence, the foreign and the national. Not quite the Malianish semi-acoustic-trad of the mid-'90s, not the modern-Westernised sound of the '80s, but a merger.

In retrospect, it feels as if he took the bones of his music out of the flesh on Moffou, examined them all over, and decided that now that he had seen them bare, he could visualise them even when they were clothed -- so La Différence is the music in clothes. The number of instruments has increased and we are not asked to attend so closely to the nuances of his voice. His new interpretation of 1995's "Folon" adds a piano, percussion, deeper guitars, and the slight shifts in his tone between one word and another -- that emotional quaver -- have been broadened down to a more all-over sound. The new version of "Seydou Bathili" removes the punctilious trumpets, and Keita's voice in the opening passages is replaced by the chorus of sweet-sour women familiar from M'Bemba. They sing for a little, then he comes in. It's a more relaxed sound, but also less personal.

There is something unusually personal here, and it's the lyrics of the title song. They start like this: "Je suis un noir / Ma peau est blanche." (I am black. My skin is white.) Keita is an albino. "For me," said Banning Eyre, interviewing Keita on, "it is a record with a big idea behind it, this idea of singing about albinism. Obviously this has been a huge part of your life, but why did you decide to sing about it now?"

S.K.: Because before, for me, I was a person like anyone else. I was a normal person. I wanted to live my life without complaining about my albinism as if it was a handicap. But now, so many things are happening to albinos. There are too many massacres. There are human sacrifices. They are victims everywhere. It's too much. I had to say something.

The profits from the album, he adds, will go toward an organisation he sponsors, Salif Keita pour les Albinos.

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