It was well worth the wait. By the time Salif Keita got on the stage at the Carnivore in Nairobi, just before midnight on Thursday night, the sell-out crowd had been treated to an endless stream of curtain raisers.
But, here was Africa’s “Golden Voice” and the rapture that greeted his entry told it all. It seemed a little curious, though, that Keita was clad not in the customary flowing Malian robes but in an all-white designer linen.
This was the third time Keita was performing in Nairobi and the first since 1994. On this night, he displayed no signs of exhaustion, despite having just arrived from a similar concert the night before in Dar es Salaam.
The groups who moments earlier had been on same stage now watched in awe as Keita’s seven-piece band kicked into action.
The set-up was fascinating to watch, traditional Malian percussion like the n’goni (lute) and the balafon blended on stage with the piano and the electric guitar.
It was a perfect match of the searing Keita tenor alongside the two female singers, Dante and Biakayote on Seydou the opening song of the set.
By this time the crowd had moved to the edge of the stage, each competing for a vantage spot as the mobile phone cameras clicked away.
The playlist consisted of Keita classics and songs from his new album La Difference. Ekolo D’Amour with its sing-along female chorus and guitar riffs works the crowd into delirious chants.
Staying true to his activist credentials, Keita sings about the ecological devastation that has befallen Africa. This was the first time Keita was using his music to explicitly confront the plight of people, who like him, have albinism.
“I wanted to live my life without complaining about my albinism as if it was a handicap. But now, so many things are happening to albinos, massacres, and human sacrifices. It is too much. I had to say something,” Keita explains.
It is no accident that he chose to perform shows in a region that has witnessed some of the worst persecution against people with albinism.
Killings of albinos and trade in their body parts have been reported in Tanzania, Burundi and to some extent Kenya.
He may be a world-renowned superstar today but Keita’s struggles are testimony to the attitudes Africans have held towards albinos. As a child, his pink complexion and yellow hair shocked his father, who shunned him and his mother.
Keita is a direct descendant of Sundiata Keita, the Mandinka warrior king who founded the Malian empire in the 13th century and so his royal blood meant he did not belong to the singing caste known as griot.
“I spent two years living in the market, playing the guitar and singing in bars and cafes,” he says. However, his voice began to attract attention and soon he was recruited as lead vocalist for The Super Rail band of Bamako after someone heard him play at a restaurant.
In 1973, Keita left the band and was replaced by Mory Kante, who was to have a big solo hit in 1987 with Yeke Yeke.
He moved on to a band called Les Ambassadeurs, where he met his musical confidant Kante Manfila and brought with him the Malian influences to the band’s Afro-Cuban music. In 1978, Keita entered a recording studio for the first time and recorded the classic Mandjou album.
The political upheavals under the military junta in Mali during the 1970s forced Keita to flee the country, first to the Cote d’Ivoire and eventually to France.
It was in Paris, then home to 15,000 Malians, that his music blossomed, blending the traditional griot music of his childhood with influences from the rest of West Africa and Arabic sounds to create the distinctive rhythms heard on albums like Soro, (1987) and Amen (1991).
His international stardom was confirmed with a performance at the Nelson Mandela 70th birthday concert in London in 1988.