It is hard to argue against the fact that Salif Keita’s voice is one of the most recognizable African voices in recent history. The Malian vocal juggernaut has been an ever-present force of bliss in the constantly evolving afropop scene since the 1970s, creating eccentric blues melodies that continue to swirl through airways around the world today. His dexterity with the rhythms of life of the Mandika in Mali, narrated through distinct soul and blues vocal grace with the help of the kora, the ngoni and other legacy instruments from his home to forge a balance with modernity through the synthesizers and other electronic instruments is unmatched. After a 40-year-old career spawning over 20 albums, both as a solo artist and in collaboration with many contemporaries from Mali and beyond, the “golden voice of Africa”, as he is sometimes referred to, is drawing the curtain on his illustrious career with his final album, Un Autre Blanc.
Released via Naïve Records in October 2018, the 10-track album is the last act in a journey that began in 1967 when he left his home town of Djoliba after being cast out of his family for his albinism. We sit at the peak of a meandering tale of a young man who fled Mali in the 1970s to Cote D’Ivoire following political unrest to form experimental Jazz Folk band, Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux. Un Autre Blanc, in a way, pays homage to all the pivotal pit stops in the maverick evolution of his sound. The album is reminiscent of his early work through various hints of nostalgia while reflecting the present with stories from the now. At about an hour long, the album sees Salif Keita in radiant form, weaving poetic narratives where he refracts his experiences through music from traditional Mande hunter tales, to Malinka love ballads.
The album begins on a euphoric note with Were Were, an energetic pop ballad that blend his signature choral vocal arrangements with transient synth-pop chords where Salif Keita expresses his deep believe in destiny and purpose. The song is richly embellished by an electrifying rhythm guitar solo, similar to something you’d hear from a desert blues band like Terakaft. Were Were sets an expectant tone for the album, although the following songs don’t necessarily live up to this heightened mood. Syrie, the second track for instance, is much more calm and sobering offering the perfect chance to belt out some glistening vocal work. The song opens with the backing vocalists gliding over the lulling Ngoni and keyboard chords, similar to something you might have heard on the critically acclaimed La Différence . Once Salif Keita settles into his vocal grove, he steers the song gently over the rhythms as he transmits his emotions surround conflict through the lyrics.
The tape continues to unfold as a fusion project with Salif masterfully drawing on various influences from highlife to soul and jazz and composing moments of contrasting emotion, some mellow and reflective whilst others are awake and charging. Additionally, Un Autre Blanc has a solid list of features with legends like Angelique Kidjo, Alpha Blondy and Ladysmith Black Mambazo aiding newcomers MHD and Yemi Alade to accompany Salif Keita on his final ride. However, the features are far from the brightest spots on the project. The final song with Alpha Blondy, Mansa Fo La is perhaps the most refreshing feature where Salif Keita interprets roots reggae through his desert blues vocal dictionary, creating a fitting mellow vibe on the song which is in praise of the mercies of God through his career.
Un Autre Blanc is a final act that is weighted by the tension of the scenes before it. The music matches the bittersweet end of Salif Keita’s recording career by reminding listeners of the emphatic radiance of his golden voice, giving fans so much to look forward in his tours ahead. However, the melancholy of an end is also counteracted by the resounding bliss of triumph, celebrated on songs like Tonton, another one of the standout cuts on the project. This project is not necessarily geared towards newer fans although it is still an entertaining hour of great music. However, Un Autre Blanc presents sequenced vignettes that highlight the scope of Salif Keita’s experimentalism with modernity and tradition, celebrating his immense contributions to contemporary African music.
Written by: Hakeem Adam
Image Credit: Via publicist.