This story is almost too sad for words. Before Salif Keita was born, a mystic predicted that he would be as important as his famous ancestor, Sundiata Keita, the founder of the Mali empire in the 13th century. Then he was born, and everyone recoiled in horror: the baby was an albino. Suddenly, nothing more was expected of him -- everyone knew that albinos cannot contribute to society. They are, after all, freaks of nature and unclean, right? Even when directly descended from Sundiata Keita.
The story gets almost too bittersweet for words. Keita channeled all the rage and sadness and anger in his heart into music; this caused his father to disown him for a while, but he came around again to see his son hone his high tenor into a sharp instrument, write songs of intense beauty, and become a superstar. He was already famous all over Africa by the mid-'80s, and then his 1987 album Soro broke him worldwide, and he soon had plenty of cash and musical respect to fill the holes in his soul.
The story is then too typical for words. He lost the thread. His albums started to get too slick, too Parisian, too easy. This happens to so many visionaries. They get what they want, but they lose what they need -- the edge that keeps them going, the anger and wonder and fear and joy of creating The New -- and it leads, invariably, to the creation of The Merely Safe. And there was Salif Keita, standing directly in his own way, lost, a victim of his own success.
But he's taken a page from another African musician who had exactly the same problem. When Baaba Maal released Mi Yeenwi in 2001, he nailed a back-to-basics vibe that he needed badly. Here, on the stunning Moffou, Keita takes a similar approach, pulling off all the cloaks that everyone has helped him put on over the years to stand naked and unashamed, revealing how great and true and beautiful a musician he truly is.
Keita's groove, like Maal's, cannot be placed in any specific African musical tradition -- both use instruments and musicians from all over the modern diaspora to create songs that exist on both the "timeless music from another world" level and the "great uncluttered pop song" levels simultaneously. "Yamore", the opener, brings in guest vocalist Cesaria Evora to pin Keita's song to the wall with her sad shoeless Cape Verdean voice, but it's really all about the hushed guitar work by longtime associate Kante Manfila. Manfila and Keita go back to the late '60s together, when they were both in the Rail Band, and Manfila knows how to showcase his friend's work. His fretwork establishes Moffou as an acoustic album, and this holds true even when keyboards and electric guitars (played by legend Djelly Moussa Kouyaté) are brought in. I don't know what any of these nine songs are about, but their musical settings are all about stripping music down to its most basic and most important elements. For this alone, Manfila has entered the pantheon of Important African Musicians: where's his breakthrough record?
But this is Keita's show the whole way. His songs range from fast-paced sprint jams like "Madan" and "Here", which feature more percussion lines than anyone could possibly keep track of and some truly funky call-and-response vocals, to the dreamy circular float of "Moussolou" and "Koukou", to the sensual Afro-Bossa feel of "Baba". The most surprising stuff here are the three solo guitar/voice features, none of which sound anything but lovely and urgent and intense and perfect; I want "Ana Na Ming" to be played at my funeral, but it will also work perfectly for birth celebrations, weddings, and late-night trysts with beautiful lovers.
Keita concocts melodies that could easily lend themselves to the fake-classical treatment, but his stuff has too many hooks for that ghetto. He is truly a popular composer, and he is at the top of his game here. His voice is urgent muezzin need, on every track -- this is a man who will not be denied his direct connection to his muse, anymore. No more banks of French synths, no more overstuffed sofas, no more anything that is not Salif Keita. This album is, almost, too beautiful for words.
This record very nearly made my top 10 list this year, and probably should have been on it -- I think I dropped it off because I thought it to be a little too smooth, a little too glossy, a bit too perfect. But listening to it this morning I don't know what the hell I could have been thinking. No music more lovely was released last year.