Music saved him from madness

2011-09-21 00:00

DISCRIMINATED against as an ­albino, his musical vocation at odds with Mali’s complex caste system, Salif Keita’s journey to worldwide fame has been achieved against the odds.

Cheick M. Chérif Keita’s Outcast to Ambassador — The Musical Odyssey of Salif Keita paints an intimate portrait of this journey, as well as opening a window into Mali’s fascinating culture. An added plus are the translations and accompanying analyses of some of Salif Keita’s best-known songs.

Chérif Keita was well placed to write the book as he and Salif Keita grew up together. “We are not blood relations, but in the same clan,” he says. “Our parents were very good friends, they fostered one of Salif’s sisters for many years.”

Chérif is well known in South ­Africa for his ground-breaking film documentaries on John Dube: ­Oberlin-Inanda: The Life and Times of John L. Dube and Cemetery ­Stories: A Rebel Missionary in South Africa, the previously untold story of American missionary Reverend ­William Wilcox, Dube’s mentor.

But film-making is just one string to Keita’s bow — professor of French and Francophone African and ­Caribbean literatures at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, in the United States, he is also an ­authority on the music of his native country, Mali.

“The book grew out of my own reminiscences of being a musician in Mali,” says Chérif. “At high school I played with the Rail Band, which Salif also played for at one stage. We played rhythm and blues — new stuff as opposed to the more traditional fare played by the well-known bands of the time. We would play Deep Purple, Ten Years After and ­Jimi Hendrix.

“I saw the transformation of the musical scene in Mali in the sixties, from independence in 1960 to the military coup in 1968. After independence there was an emphasis on developing traditional music, but ­after the coup things became more open — that’s when we came on the scene, playing R&B and rock.”

These years introduced Malian musicians to a variety of influences. “Blues singers Junior Wells and Buddy Guy came from the U.S., and there were bands from Senegal,” says Chérif. “It was an important musical moment in Mali.” And Salif Keita was part of it.

Keita was born in 1949 in Djoliba, a village on the banks of the river Niger, and on one of the main roads to Mali’s capital, Bamako. He was born into a noble (horon) family, and could trace his ancestry back to Soundiata Keita, the 13th-century founder of the Mali Empire, which incorporated various ethnic groups speaking one of the Mande languages found throughout the region.

“The Mande Empire spread far beyond the borders of modern-day Mali,” says Chérif. “And the epic ­story of Soundiata is similar to that of King Shaka in South Africa.”

Malian society is structured around an ancient and complex caste system. “In Mande society, a person is generally defined by a family identity or fasiya,” says Chérif, “a complex of attributes related to one’s birthright. Consequently, one may be a horon (noble or freeborn), a jon (captive) or a nyamakala (a member of the artistic castes). But one may also have a professional occupation as one’s fasiya. Thus, a person could be a farmer, a fisherman, a blacksmith or a musician because he was raised in a family where such an activity was the main occupation.”

Individuals are expected to maintain the family identity in the type of profession they take up and for someone of noble birth — a horon — like Keita, a musical career was considered unacceptable. His father, the late Sina Keita, once said in an interview: “I told Salif that I did not like his guitar-playing because this was not part of our family heritage. Every time I saw him with a guitar I would chase him out of the house, until one day he said: ‘Yes, father, I will stop.’ Since that day, he would take his guitar and play it somewhere else in the village.”

Adding to the pressures of the Mande caste system was the fact of Keita’s albinism. “Being an albino, Salif had to endure the nefarious effects of ignorance, social exclusion and discrimination,” says Chérif.

In the village where he grew up, Keita’s condition was accepted, but away from this sheltered environment it was a different story. Keita was often the target of mockery, referred to as “local white man”, along with other derogatory terms. “Even worse, Salif said that upon seeing him, some people would spit on the ground to express their disgust, or to ward off what they considered a calamity or a curse.”

Keita left Djoliba for Bamako in 1967, first joining the Orchestre Rail Band de Bamako and later Les ­Ambassadeurs, which subsequently became Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux.

A feature of Malian— indeed West African — life at the time was that bands and musicians were sponsored or “protected” by politicians. “It was the only way they could survive,” says Chérif. “It was a marriage of convenience, but it meant they were also seen as a particular politician’s band, as propaganda agents. It was a devil’s bargain.

“Salif’s indebtedness to a political power also prevented him from drawing on and expressing his rich inner world,” says Chérif.

With the death of his protector, military officer Tiecoro Bagayoko, in 1978, Keita left for Abidjan in the Ivory Coast where a flourishing music scene was attracting talent from all over Francophone Africa.

There, Keita came under the patronage of Sékou Touré, President of the Republic of Guinea, and Mandjou, a praise song dedicated to Touré, was hugely successful and brought Keita’s music to a wider public. But success via such a vehicle proved something of a poisoned chalice and, as Chérif points out, Keita will be “confronted forever with the many questions that have been and will be raised by the thorny topic of Sékou Touré’s political legacy. Touré became a tyrant, but he was a fascinating character. He respected Salif for who and what he was. It was a dreadful irony that they became enmeshed.”

Touré died in 1983 and shortly afterwards, in 1984, Keita moved to Paris. “Europe was a liberation for him. He was able to develop his own personal lyrics, and connect with a universal audience,” says Cherif.

Keita’s move to Paris was a form of self-imposed exile, and he fortuitously found himself in the right place at the right time — at the beginning of the World Music boom. Keita evolved his distinctive style ­using a variety of instruments including djembes, guitars, koras, balafons, organs, saxophones, and synthesizers. His hit album Soro, in 1987, launched his international career and Keita now spends his time between France and Mali, to where he returned in 2002 and subsequently built a studio in Bamako.

Keita’s latest album, the award-winning La Difference, is dedicated to the struggle of the albino community, a cause which Keita has long championed.

In an earlier song, Sina (from the album Soro), Keita sang the praises of his late father. It’s an autobiographical work that Chérif says marks “the culmination of a negotiation Salif has had to achieve, both consciously and unconsciously, with his family identity over the years.”

“If Salif was able to persevere in his choice of music as a profession in spite of the obstacles connected to his social origin, it was because music was for him not only a means of economic survival, but also a way to attain the psychological balance he needed to face life’s many challenges. As he once told his mother, music was the only thing that could save him from madness.”

• Outcast to Ambassador — The Musical Odyssey of Salif Keita by Cheick M. Chérif Keita is published by Mogoya Books, and is available via websites such as and

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