Salif Keita at Yoshi's San Francisco

Harry S. Pariser By

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Salif Keita
San Francisco, CA
September 7, 2014

Any opportunity to see Salif Keita, the 65-year-old "Golden Voice of Africa" is a special occasion indeed. Keita, a 40-year-plus veteran of the music scene, is one of Africa's top musical stars, one who travels all over the world. He sings in Malinké, a dialect of the Manding group of languages—prevalent but not predominant in many West African nations including Mali, Guinea, Senegal and the Ivory Coast but a language incomprehensible to most of his audience. Keita must hold his own through the command of his highly accomplished voice, a task he ably accomplishes.

Special circumstances combined to facilitate Keita's path to fame. Born into a royal family, Keita found himself barred by social custom from becoming a musician. As an albino, Keita (a direct descendant of founder of Sundiata Keita, founder of the Mali Empire), was cast out as a member of his extended family. So he found his way in music, first joining the government sponsored Super Rail Band de Bamako in 1967 before becoming a member of Les Ambassadeurs in 1973. He and the band fled a repressive Malian dictatorship a few years later and landed in the Ivory Coast. There the band's name was changed to Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux. The group was presented with a National Order award from Sékou Touré, then the president of Guinea. Keita moved to Paris in 1984 where he began his successful solo career.

Billed as an "acoustic tour," the evening did not quite live up to the label, being more a mixture of traditional African instruments faced off against American electric. At the set's beginning, Mamadou Diabate, brother of renowned kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate , took the stage and plucked at his kora, playing in tandem with an electronic sample while exhibiting extraordinary virtuosity. The rest of the band took the stage.
Kamelan n'goni player Souleymane Kouyaté was joined by electric guitarist Ousmane Kouyaté and accomplished percussionist Guy Nwogang, and the band launched into a soulful rendering of "Katolon," an interpretation of a Bambara love song, as the swirling forms of Aminata Dante and Bah Kouyaté provided backing vocals.

Then the songbird himself appeared, clad in a white tunic, derby, and traditional slippers. Keita sat himself down and launched into song. Guitarist Ousmane Kouyaté, gold rings adorning his left hand, deftly fingered his red-and-black guitar (which was plugged into an old tube amplifier) as Diabate beamed and bobbed his head. Women were dancing for the lovely, lyrical and polyrhythmic "Tu Vas Me Manquer," with its call and response between Keita and the vocalists:

"We got to Senegal
We got to Dakar
In front of the ocean
In the capital
Someone saw my love
Someone with power
Someone told my love
Let's go to near the water
There's good food to eat there
I told my love
Don't accept it
Don't believe what they say
Don't fall for that
Don't fall for that
Don't fall for those people
Don't fall for that kind of person"

Sporting Ousmane Kouyaté, who was clad in a blue djellaba, stepped forward and—with one foot propped on the edge of the stage—soloed as Souleymane Kouyaté, his acoustic ngoni overpowered by fierce electric guitar, looked on. Keita stood and sang emphatically; the audience went wild.

"Yamore," first recorded as a duet with Cabo Verde's "Barefoot Diva" Cesaria Evora, was next as guitarist Kouyaté and Keita danced joyfully along with the audience. Next up was "Mandjou," an oldie dating from the days of Les Ambassadeurs. This praise song to Sekou Toure had the audience going. Seated again, Keita sang other numbers, including "Tekére" ("Clap Your Hands"), a praise song for the traditional griot (musical storyteller of Mali), before concluding a musically compelling evening with the lively "Prempin."

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