Rail Band of the Train Station Hotel, Ambassadeurs of the Motel of Bamako, Ambassadeurs Internationaux, and lately, Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux: so many bands that enabled Salif Keita to ascend the steep steps to world fame. Not only do their names suggest a quest, a thirst for mobility and travel, ...
And along the way, Salif has bagged countless awards, national distinctions and prizes over his decades of touring the world, establishing his reputation as the Golden Voice of Africa, the Patriarch and the undisputed Ambassador of African music.
Here we are. Forty years later and another milestone, Un Autre Blanc, the new album that Salif Keita has announced as his last. Ready to celebrate 50 years of a stellar career in music and soon to be seventy, and perhaps as a way of winding down, Salif Keita wishes to spread out his mat under the mango trees of the banks of the Niger river, to indulge in his favorite game of draughts. A well-‐deserved rest, to be sure, for the Prodigy(N’an kama) of Djoliba but should we really believe that this beautiful album will be the last word of a most prolific poet, whose luminous voice has carried hope, even as far as the cells of Robben Island?
This album of 10 brand-‐new tracks continues Salif’s advocacy for the human rights of people with Albinism, a fight his Foundation for Albinism pledges to intensify, especially since the UN has declared June 13 the International Albinism Awareness Day. Salif is protesting the continued abduction and killing of albinos in a number of African countries for purposes of witchcraft and financial profit. He decries the fact that local witch doctors often purposefully spread and perpetuate misconceptions and superstitions for personal gain, and in some cases, family members of these innocent victims being complicit in these crimes.
Some master artists transform their personal perspective into universally resonant art. That has been Malian icon Salif Keita’s way, since his first releases. Never shying from the bold contradictions of his own position as a white-skinned African (as he describes in the moving “La Différence”), as an adored outcast, Keita’s songs have moved people across the planet for decades.
Now he asks listeners to consider Un Autre Blanc, his latest (and likely last) studio offering. The album invites his fans to celebrate our many differences and savor the many shades of experience. Un Autre Blanc showcases Keita’s songwriting prowess and his skill for lush, emotional arrangements, all revolving around the earthy gravitas of Keita’s voice.
Keita brings a diverse group of African music luminaries to collaborate with him on Un Autre Blanc, including Angélique Kidjo (“Itarafo”), Ladysmith Black Mambazo (“Ngamale”), and Alpha Blondy (“Mansa Fo La”).
“When some people sing, they create social change. Salif changed the old ways in Mali, our relationship to musicianship, to classifying people,” muses Dr. Chérif Keita, Salif’s cousin and biographer, as well as a professor at Carleton College. “Because of his condition, he had to latch on to what he could do to survive in a harsh environment in Bamako. Music became his salvation.”
Keita’s international notoriety began in the late 70s, as Mali established itself as an independent country, though the bard and prodigy had cut his teeth for years prior. Though he was not from a griot family, not a hereditary musician, he struggled and fought to be accepted as a new kind of voice in a new nation.
“He had to find a musical identity that would fit him,” Chérif explains. “He worked on it for decades, and over the years he came to identify with the idea of the hunter, with that body of secret knowledge that helps a hunter overcome the trials of the hunt in the wilderness.” Hunting knowledge included musical performance, and Salif drew on those images to craft a place for himself in Malian music and society. Then he worked to expand the possibilities for others.
Fifty years, numerous albums and numerous world tours and international collaborations later--projects with Carlos Santana, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Vernon Reid, and Esperanza Spalding, among many others--Keita is retiring, leaving the world with one last vital statement. Though his work has highlighted the needs and rights of those with albinism in Africa, an experience he knows personally, his critique and clarion call for acceptance ring true for differences of all kinds.
“I’m a white man with a deep black African soul, and I have accepted that. Now you have to accept that difference and that contrast,” says Keita. Even if Keita leaves the studio behind, his activism on behalf of those with albinism will continue, as will his call to embrace diversity and honor people’s heroic everyday struggles for respect.