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The Boston Phoenix African Anthems

Salif Keita tackles rock

By Banning Eyre

FEBRUARY 8, 1999:  Salif Keita lives to break down walls. The Malian superstar redefined prospects for all African singers with 1987's Soro (Mango), a fusion of Malian folkloric music and progressive rock. Since then, his recorded output has included his Grammy-nominated collaboration with Joe Zawinul (1991's Amen), a rootsy film soundtrack for the film L'enfant lion, an album of French pop songs (1996's Sosie), and now a bold, yet-unnamed work co-produced by former Living Coloür guitarist Vernon Reid that's slated for release by Metro Blue/Blue Note later this year. With a revised band in tow, and untold surprises up his sleeve, Keita will return to the Boston area this weekend for a Friday-night show at the Somerville Theatre.

Keita's iconoclasm has inspired fierce debates over the years. It's not hard to understand why people care so much: he possesses one of the most powerful singing voices of our time. Take "Bolon," one of the Vernon Reid tracks. Over a tough, brooding, vamp, Keita roars with passion, howls and wails, then slides into a state of intimate melancholia. Each emotional nuance is pellucid. Spiritual possession pervades his best songs, and anyone touched by his music is apt to want more. The problem is, Keita never repeats himself. The next release always represents a further evolution of his restless soul.

"I like that," Keita tells me over the phone from a Paris studio where he's rehearsing for the upcoming tour. "I want my records to make a universe. Whichever one you pick will be another personality, and if you listen to all that I've done, you won't get bored."

Keita's restlessness goes way back. He grew up in a family of poor but well-born "nobles" in a village south of the Malian capital, Bamako. When he left home for the city, at age 18, he was already alienated because he is an albino, a condition that evokes fear and superstition in Africa. Keita didn't feel he had much to lose by becoming a singer, but in doing so he broke the rules of his society. Among the Manding people, music had always been the provenance of griots, a caste distinctly beneath the Keitas. Yet new currents were flowing in post-colonial West Africa, and having made his move, Keita quickly gained public support as the sensational young vocalist for the legendary Rail Band of Bamako. He soon jumped ship to form the rival Ambassadeurs du Motel. Then, late in the '70s, he took the core of that band to Abidjan, where they worked as Les Ambassadeurs International.

If you listen to the terrific archival recordings available by these bands, you can hear the way they fused Manding griot music with rock, reggae, and Latin music. People naturally concluded that Keita's blasting vocal style came from the griots, but the truth is, he always fancied himself a rocker. "Since I was 15, all I listened to was rock and American pop. At my house even now, that's all there is. People have never understood that. They've tried to make me do concerts in the jazz circuit. But I would rather do concerts in the rock and pop circuit."

Keita's international producers and handlers have considered the Afropop tag too limiting for such a giant talent. But after the Zawinul project failed to produce crossover success, there was no clear strategy for marketing his maverick creations. So in 1997 he came to New York and began working with Reid and a mostly American band. Keita says the sessions went beautifully, a point well underlined by the way Reid's virtuoso metallic guitar interacts with Keita's husky vocals on the tune "Ananamin." Yet there has been a lot of fussing since those original sessions. The most recent mixes, just completed in Paris, are dark, with simple grooves and sparse arrangements. The instrumentation includes everything from futuristic electronics to the naturalistic kora (21-string harp) of fellow Malian Toumani Diabate.

Diabate was along this past summer when Keita previewed some of these songs in his US appearances with the Africa Fête tour. Keita's sterling regular guitarist, Ousmane Kouyate, made no attempt to mimic Reid's work, but an American rhythm section delivered the sort of hefty brawn Keita wanted for the newer songs. The result was a powerful fusion of ancient Mali and modern America, perhaps a truer realization of Keita's rocker dreams than the recording.

Keita is probably too sentimental to inhabit fully the alienated emotional space of contemporary rock. But like all of his work, the rockier new material has depths worth exploring. One of the best tracks is "Abede," a song that injects the fleet melodies of Diabate's kora into the context of a pounding rock anthem. Keita explains that this is a song in praise of a Guinean journalist. "He did what he liked. He said what he had to say. He had no fear. That's rare in Africa."

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