Malian singer holds his hand out to other cultures
West Africa's Salif Keita defines world music
Nairobi, Kenya — THE man who has done much to bring African music to the world, West Africa's Salif Keita, walks casually onto a small stage here. Standing amid his multinational band, he closes his eyes and bows deeply.
As the music begins, he stands with his hands palm-to-palm in a prayerlike gesture. Then he begins to sing in the high-pitched, belting style that once cut through market crowds in his native Mali, where he earned pocket money as a youth. It is a style that filled halls during his United States tour in April.
But at first, the crowd of Kenyans and some Westerners jammed in here does not ignite.
Keita's music can work that way. You can listen to it, swaying slightly in time, as you marvel at the voice that climbs and climbs, extending the high notes out like a father holding his child up for everyone to admire.
Or you can dance, jump around, and lose yourself in the drum beats and melodies, spun with great vocal skill.
Before starting his second number here, Keita looks down at the audience and urges them to get up and dance.
As if waiting for this cue, most of the 1,000 or so capacity crowd at the Carnivore restaurant's music hall jumps up. A sea of swaying heads suddenly becomes a higher sea of waving arms, like antlers in a herd of music-loving impala.
Keita's stage manner is modest. He often steps behind the instrumental soloists, whose skills bring anyone not yet standing to his feet, especially the explosions of saxophonist Glaucus Xavier from Brazil. But the others, including Ousmane Kouyate, on guitar, and percussionist Souleymane Doumbia, one of only two Malians in the band, more than shine.
Unlike so many performers today, Keita does not jump, prance, or go through a lot of costume changes. He simply turns on his voice -
and that's enough.
Keita starts with an African sound: He sings in the Bambara language of Mali, though sometimes in French. He is accompanied by African drums. But the snare drums, saxophone, keyboards, and sometimes trumpets give the music a bit of a big-band sound, with a Caribbean flavor. Everyone seems to hear something different in it; some even hear jazz.
Still pumped up from two hours of singing, Keita talks with three journalists, his eyes closed part of the time, the same way he does much of his singing.
``My music is 50-50,'' he says - half African and half a blend of other cultures.
``You have to keep your culture, respect your culture, but you have to give your hand to other cultures,'' he says. ``We have to move with the time.''
Keita is part of what has become known as ``world music,'' variously defined to include music from different parts of the globe. But he claims Africa is the starting point for much of today's music.
``Where does rock come from? Africa. Jazz? It's African music,'' Keita says. ``African music is the root and the trunk - ...[some of] the leaves and fruit are reggae and funk.''
Musicians should listen, appreciate, and learn from the music of those from other places, but not try to imitate, according to Keita. His favorite singer is Michael Jackson, he says. ``But I don't sing [like] Michael Jackson.''
Unable to find enough business, or the high-quality studios and musicians he needed in Mali, Keita has made Paris his home since the early 1980s. His visit here, part of an African tour that included South Africa, was subsidized by the French government.
But he goes back to Mali frequently to visit his family. Because his family is considered noble in his culture, his father did not want him to sing, considering that the work of a lower class of people. But Keita began singing anyway.
``I sing about day-to-day life. I propose solutions,'' he says. ''I believe in God. You have to work and try to help yourself.... I think we have to tell the world that love is the best way to live.''
* For more information about Salif Keita's recordings or tours, contact: Mango Records, 900 Lafayette St., New York, NY, 10003.