For almost every song, Keita was accompanied by “sequencer” Abou Cisse, ngoni player Harouna Samake, electric guitarist Djessou Mory Kante, Tim Keiper on Western drum kit, as well as a percussionist on African drums and two female back-up singers. All of these musicians are clearly first-rate artists in their own right. The Town Hall was packed with enthusiastic fans; excitement was keen before the music began. When the music began, it became clear that this concert was going to be about creating vibrant, lively connections among musicians and audience: this was about music that sets you to moving, and about energy, possibility and community.
Keita doesn’t in any simple sense sing songs. He talks, intones, proclaims and declares them; he extends them towards his listeners as he might offer a part of himself. Whether careening along a narrative at a fast pace or lingering over the expression of a deep emotion, his voice manages to be alternately gravelly and sensuous. He can be like a grandfather or a young lover, like a secret-whisperer or a muezzin. The African instruments and ancient African harmonies keep Keita’s music rooted in Mali; the American instruments and pop and jazz allusions give the sound its international modernity.
Keita clearly takes great pleasure in the music of the instrumentalists he sings with: on almost every song, each instrument gets its own extended riff. Keita stands back and listens, pacing the stage a bit, moving with the pulse of things, often smiling. But even when other musicians are playing, the heart and oxygen of each song somehow emanate from Keita himself. And even when audience members manage to get themselves on the stage to start dancing – fevered bravura, look-at-me abandon, and sheer, giddy glee on full display – the energy of it all is still originating from Salif Keita.
After several long songs, all the musicians left the stage, and Keita sat down with an acoustic guitar and sang one piece. Like all the songs, it was known to most of the fans in the audience, but in the quiet that Keita’s solitary figure commanded, the song sounded like something absolutely new, a fresh set of revelations, presented from inside himself as though for the first time.
Immediately after this song, Keita exhorted the audience to stand up and stretch. The band came back on stage, and then the whole place bust loose. Singing began, and there was no sitting down any more; the aisles close to the stage were a crush of dancing people, arms lifted high, cell ‘phones filming and flashing. For the rest of the concert, the frayed and run-down Gilded Age glamor of Town Hall was alive with Malian pop music.
When people cheered and shouted comments to each other, French was spoken in Parisian, African and Caribbean accents, and New York English came from all five boroughs. From backstage came Keita’s friends – or perhaps family members: they weren’t introduced – including jumping, hip-swaying, hand-clapping little children. In the concert hall and the balcony, strangers standing next to each other danced with each other as though they’d been friends for years.
When the concert ended at last, exuberance spilled out onto the mid-town streets.
This was a long way away from the sedate opening formal interview.
Keita’s story is certainly fascinating, the stuff of both myth and late twentieth century politics and globalism. Born into a noble Malian family as a direct descendant of Sundiata Keita, 13th century Mandinka warrior king who established the Malian empire, Salif Keita was shunned at birth: albino and sickly, his very being was associated with curse and misfortune. Even the boy’s gift – his musical talent – was treated with contempt by his family. But the gift proved stronger than the prejudices against it, and Keita surrounded himself with musicians in his own Mali, then in France, and then back again in Mali, to become one of contemporary Africa’s most important popular singers, “the golden voice of Africa.”
In the 7:00 “q and a,” Eyre asked Keita questions in English about his career, his music, his albinism awareness foundation, and Keita responded in French; the replies were then translated with unerring accuracy and attention to nuance by Dupuis, as Keita’s occasional smiles or glances made clear that he understands more English that he wished to let on. The interview was useful factually, but was more important in its revelation that Keita, though describing himself deprecatingly as apolitical, believes that the purpose of music is to tell the truth … surely a political exercise.
In fact, from the moment the music began until its high-energy, happy end, the concert embodied a double identity of personal truth telling and communal truth receiving; the evening was an extended engagement in the project of exploring what it feels like to be human, to arrive at joy, hold it close and then release it into each other’s arms. This is political art at its most optimistic.
World Music Institute: Masters of African Music Series
Salif Keita (April 1, 2017)
The Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street, in Manhattan
Running time: one hour and 20 minutes with no intermission