Although he is arguably one of Africa’s best known artistes, Salif Keïta had to battle many challenges unique to Africa to secure a spot on that coveted list.
Though he was born into royalty, he had to fight for the privileges he enjoys today. A direct descendant of Sundiata Keïta, the man who some 800 years ago built Africa’s premier empire, Keïta had to go against the mores of his royal lineage to find himself.
Breaking centuries-old traditions, he has beaten the odds to become “The Golden Voice of Africa”.
Larger than the Roman empire and stretching across West Africa, the Empire of Mali Empire was the epicentre of culture and civilisation.
Though lost in the mists of time, the Malian empire left behind a society steeped in culture and tradition. In a country where culture is law, the idea that Keïta, a member of the royal family, wanted to become a musician, was unfathomable.
Music was relegated to the lower class of griots, who were storytellers, singers, musicians and oral historians. As if his wish to become a musician was not bad enough, Keïta was born with albinism, a condition that his Mandinka people could not tolerate. In the end, he was ostracised, and even his royal background couldn’t save him.
“I am proud of who I am. I had fight for the right to be me and my battle was on two main fronts.
One, I was the only albino in my village, and two, I was the only Keïta who had the guts to be a musician. I’m different and I have come to accept that different is normal. Everybody is unique; only twins look alike. I am a White man with black blood. I am a Black man with white skin.”
For more than 40 years now, his captivating voice has been rocking the airwaves with authentic African tunes. It all began in 1967, when he joined the government-funded Super Rail Band de Bamako after leaving his village of Djoliba for the capital, Bamako. He later joined Les Ambassadeurs in 1973, but the group fled the political unrest of the mid-1970s and moved to the Ivorian capital, Abidjan.
While in exile, they changed their name to Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux and rose to the international Platform in the ’70s.
A super, young Keïta can be seen belting out classics like Were Were and Mandjou in their fuzzy, black-and-white live recording shoot.
From the look of things, age has done little to fade the musical prowess that launched him in the first place.
“It is my birthday today and it’s such a privilege to celebrate it in Kenya,” he says during the interview on August 25. “I am not as young or energetic as I used to be (he turned 66), and I am looking forward to retiring and training the next generation.”
Although he has played for international audiences, his sound remains authentically African, from the language, to the incorporation of traditional instruments and styles.
“Music is music, you can’t control it. It’ll cross borders and break barriers,” he explains. “However, you can trace the origin of most genres to Africa, from jazz, to blues to reggae. So, as Africans, we should tap into our traditional tunes to give us an edge on the global scene.”
Having experienced discrimination first-hand, Keïta has passionately pursued equality. His drive for social work and advocacy was further boosted by the loss of his albino sister to skin cancer. Named UN Ambassador for Music and Sports in December 2004, Keïta has dedicated himself to causes like Malaria, Aids and the plight of albinos in Mali and around the world.
Collaborating with his Olympic medal-winning albino niece, and one of his children born with albinism, Keïta founded The Salif Keïta Global Foundation in 2005 to raise awareness and funds for free healthcare and educational services for the care and integration of albinos in Africa, and to create international advocacy for the plight of people with albinism around the world.
“I am privileged to be among people who are changing lives,” he says. “As albinos, we must accept ourselves before we can join hands to fight for our rights. Things have changed, but a lot more needs to be done. Most of the attacks on albinos and the cultural stigma they suffer is based on ignorance. That is why I use my position as a performer to show people that I am normal.”
Locally, Keïta partnered with Nonini to support the Colour Kwa Face project, which advocates for the needs and rights of alibinos. However, musically, he has not collaborated with any Kenyan artiste. But when asked if he had any intentions to do so, he replied: “Why not, I would love to work with Kenyan musicians. I performed with some when I was here in 2013 and it was a wonderful experience.
I’ve been listening to Kenyan music since I was a kid. I am really proud of Kenyans.”
Keïta is in town to headline the Safaricom International Jazz Lounge at the Bomas of Kenya tomorrow. The lounge is part of an annual series of events that brings international jazz artistes to Kenya. The proceeds of the show go to Ghetto Classics, a mentorship programme that uses music to inspire youths in Korogocho, Nairobi, to be the best they can.
On the sidelines, Keïta will also train local artistes through master classes, during which he also learn from them. Having overcome the oods to become a global icon, Salif has a wealth of knowledge on the industry.
“Unfortunately we don’t commercialise music in Africa. Artistes really need to understand the business side of entertainment. I am happy to hear that Kenya has adopted a 60 per cent local content policy for the media. Artistes need to build a local