Salif Keita Returns to Mali's Traditional Sounds Salif Keita has been called the "golden voice of Mali" and a pioneer of the music called Afro-pop. But his latest CD, M'bemba (Ancestor), features traditional African instruments and a "more spontaneous" sound.

Salif Keita Returns to Mali's Traditional Sounds

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ED GORDON, host:

Our weeklong look at the world of Afro-pop continues now. Today, we profile African superstar Salif Keita.

As NPR's Roy Hurst reports, Keita is called the golden voice of Mali.

(Soundbite of music)

ROY HURST reporting:

Salif Keita is a true pioneer in the genre called Afro-pop - a great example of a post imperialist African sensibility. By the 1960s, the Malian musician was breaking with tradition, developing a new kind of African dance music - one strongly influenced by places outside the African continent - places like Cuba, Portugal, the Middle East, and black America.

Mr. SALIF KEITA (Musician): (Through translator) I been hearing for years -since I was very young - American music. And I have heard all the great groups, so there is no doubt that they have had a influence on me and on my experience.

HURST: Keita's first breakthrough came in 1977 with his group The Ambassadors.

(Soundbite of song, Mandjou)

THE AMBASSADORS (Afro-pop Group): (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HURST: This griot praise song, Mandjou, was the hit that crossed the globe.

(Soundbite of song, Mandjou)

THE AMBASSADORS: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HURST: For most of his career, Salif Keita has been in serious dialogue with Malian tradition. You might say that task was thrust on him at birth. He was born in 1949 to an aristocratic family, a direct descendant of Mali's 13-century founding father.

But Salif Keita was also born an albino, a black African with white skin. In Africa, albinos are widely considered bad luck. Keita's own father, a nobleman, rejected him for years.

Mr. KEITA: (Through translator) I was rejected at the beginning, but afterwards my father and I become best friends before his death. But, of course, albinism is not very well understood in Africa. Because in Africa everybody's black, and we are white.

It's explained by tradition, but the tradition rejects the albinos. There is an exclusion and great deal of misery. The albinos are sacrificed and their blood is used for ritual sacrifice, and there is a great deal of suffering.

HURST: Malian tradition didn't leave much room for Keita's musical ambitions, either. It turned out to be another tension father and son had to resolve.

Mr. KEITA: (Through translator) When I started making music, he didn't like that either. He told me that this was not our sort of work - that music was special, and we were not meant to make music because the noblemen were not musicians.

HURST: Did your condition have anything to do with your choice to be a musician?

Mr. KEITA: (Through translator) Yes. I told them that because of my bad eyesight, I could not study. I started the professional school to be a teacher. But I had no choice, and he had no money to give me so that I could go into trade. I could not be out in the sun to do anything outside. I had no diploma.

So I had only two choices - to be a delinquent or to be a musician, because I was out the street. So I thought it was nobler to be a musician than to be a delinquent.

(Soundbite of music)

MR. KEITA: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HURST: Keita spent his teenage years homeless, playing music on the streets of Bamako, Mali's capital city. In spite of his albinism, it wasn't long before his talent gained him widespread popularity.

Today, he is perhaps Mali's best known face. I asked him if he sees Malian culture moving away from old traditions.

Mr. KEITA: (Through translator) I think that it's not that Mali is going away from its past, but rather that it's going forward and that it's changing to be in communication with other cultures and with other social environments.

HURST: But Keita says there's still work to be done, not least of all with the issue of Albinism. And so he's begun a foundation to help Albinos. He bought land in Bamako, and he's trying to raise money for a school and a clinic for people with the condition.

Mr. KEITA: (Through translator) I have to absolutely set up an Albino's clinic and a dispensary and a school for them, because I don't want to have lived for nothing.

HURST: Musically speaking, Keita is looking back. He's using more traditional African instruments and less of an electronic sound. His new record is called M'bemba, or ancestor. It focuses on the boundaries created by Mali's class system. And since he had his guitar on his lap, I asked him to give me a sample of one the songs.

This is Bobo.

(Soundbite of song, Bobo)

Mr. KEITA: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

HURST: Salif Keita believes he was born to make change through activism and through music. He says his mission is to preserve the best that Malian tradition has to offer, while leaving the rest to the past.

Mr. KEITA: (Through translator) It was God's will. I had no choice. The world is evolving. The same traditions are not good in the modern world. You have to fight sometimes these traditions to progress in the world.

(Soundbite of song, Bobo)

HURST: Roy Hurst, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: You can learn more about Salif Keita and hear a live performance at our Web site at

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us.

To listen to the show, visit

NEWS AND NOTES was created NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS AND NOTES.

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