Music

Salif Keita: Moffou

Matt Cibula

Salif Keita

Moffou

Label: Universal
US Release Date: 2002-09-17
UK Release Date: 2002-04-08
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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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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