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The roots modernism of Malian innovator Salif Keita’s early years

Malian singer and songwriter Salif Keita says that Un Autre Blanc will be his last album. After 50 years on the stage, he wants to take a break and spend more time campaigning on behalf of albino people. Chris May looks back on the revolutionary first 25 years of Keita’s career, beginning with roots modernists the Rail Band and Les Ambassadeurs in Mali and Côte d’Ivoire, then as a solo artist based in Paris.

When Salif Keita decided to become a professional musician, he faced bigger difficulties than simply securing a gig. Number one, he was born with albinism, a condition widely discriminated against in Africa. Number two, he comes from a royal family, descendants of Sunjata Keita, the 13th century founder of the Kingdom of Mali. For anyone in such a family to become a professional singer, rather than employ griots – West African story-tellers – to sing their praises, was virtually unthinkable in the 1960s.

Whether because of albinism or to save his family from embarrassment, or both, legend has it that at Keita’s first performance with the Rail Band, at the Hotel de la Gare in Bamako in 1969, he draped a towel over his head to hide his face. He need not have worried. Within a few months he had been nicknamed The Golden Voice by an adoring press and public. Family approval, or at least acceptance, followed.

Keita was an influential figure in the modernisation of traditional music in Mali and its neighbouring countries, first with the Rail Band, and then with Les Ambassadeurs. Regional folk heritages transcended the arbitrary borders imposed during the colonial era. Keita and his collaborators – who briefly included the Guinean singer, kora and balafon player Mory Kante, and the electric guitarist Kante Manfila – achieved this modernisation without abandoning their cultural legacies.

With one exception, an EP recorded during a reunion of Les Ambassadeurs in 2014, this selection of 10 essential Keita discs focuses on the first half of his career, rather than his recent, more widely-documented history.