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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Keita helped revolutionize African popular culture by combining traditional Malian music with electric instruments to make the Afro-pop sound. His haunting and mesmerizing voice invokes deep emotion from fans in Mali and around the world. From Bamako, Mali, independent producer Reese Erlich takes a look at the impact of Salif Keita's music.

(Soundbite of music)

REESE ERLICH: There are so many musicians here in a major Bamako nightclub that they can barely fit on the stage. They play electric guitars, Malian lutes, and a one-string violin. Dancers float gracefully to the rhythms, combining traditional steps with Motown-like moves.

(Soundbite of music)

ERLICH: Over the past 10 years, the music scene has exploded here in Bamako. A bevy of foreign musicians visit regularly to make CDS. One of the key people behind this musical renaissance is singer Salif Keita. Twenty-five years ago, Keita became famous performing in Europe and the U.S. He returned to live in Bamako in 1991, where he opened up a nightclub and recording studio. Muri Sumano(ph), host of a music show on Malian state radio, says Keita is the most popular musician in the country.

Mr. MURI SUMANO (Host of show on Malian state radio): (Speaking Foreign Language)

ERLICH: Go anywhere in Mali, in the city or in the small villages, everyone is listening to his music, from the youth to the old people. It's hard to be a king in your own country, but Salif is a king here.

Sumano says Keita achieved his popularity by reworking traditional songs with modern arrangements and instrumentation.

Mr. SUMANO: (Speaking Foreign Language)

ERLICH: Every album of Salif's takes something from the roots and modernizes it. These electric guitars, horns, and electric bass - this kind of modernization, builds on traditional style. But people recognize the original sound.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KEITA: (Singing in foreign language)

ERLICH: Keita is an albino, and he faced intense discrimination in his youth. Most West Africans considered albinos a symbol of bad luck. The fight against discrimination provided the backdrop for him to become a griot. Traditionally, griots were wandering, storytelling musicians who sometimes helped resolve local disputes. Interviewed in the U.S. during a recent tour. Keita explains in French and English that he considers himself a modern day griot.

Mr. KEITA: (Speaking foreign language)

ERLICH: The griot tradition continues today. It's ingrained in our culture; it's part of who we are. They are our history, our libraries, our books, our documents.

Mr. KEITA: You can find (unintelligible), they're everywhere.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing in foreign language)

ERLICH: Keita carries on that griot tradition in his new CD M'bemba, which means grandfather. Keita says the title track tells a story of a village healer.

Mr. Keita: (Speaking foreign language)

ERLICH: I'm paying homage to a friend who is very spiritual. He knows plants, and he knows the earth. He's a healer. When you listen to the song, you can hear the emotion in my voice.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. Keita: (Singing in foreign language)

ERLICH: Keita describes himself as a pan-Africanist, and some of his songs reflect strong social criticism. For example, his famous song Nou Pas Bouger, which means we won't budge, protests the treatment of Africans emigrating to the West.

(Soundbite of song, “Nou Pas Bouger”)

Mr. KEITA: (Singing in foreign language)

ERLICH: Muri Somanu says, however, the song doesn't take a strident tone.

Mr. SOMANU: (Speaking foreign language)

ERLICH: In Africa, we welcome Chinese, Japanese and all kinds of Europeans because we feel equal to them. But as soon as we travel to France, they try and say your papers are not in order - you must go home. Salif explains very politely to people that we need each other, we need to be together. That's the moral lesson of we won't budge.

The song, originally released in 1989, was so popular that Keita's about to issue a hip-hop version.

(Soundbite of song, “Nou Pas Bouger”)

Mr. KEITA: (Singing in foreign language)

ERLICH: Keita says he never planned on becoming an international star. He pursued his music, and audiences around the world seemed to respond.

Mr. KEITA: (Speaking foreign language)

ERLICH: When singing for a non-African audience, I almost forget that they don't understand because I feel very connected with them when I sing.

Mr. KEITA: If you are well, people understand you. When you're singing, it's true.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: Mr. Keita, talk to the people.

ERLICH: For NPR News, I'm Reese Erlich.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KEITA: (Singing in foreign language)

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Salif Keita recently actually came here to NPR West and performed some of his songs, and you can hear them. They're at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KEITA: (Singing in foreign language)

CHADWICK: And there's more to come on DAY TO DAY.

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