Golden voice

Salif Keita’s buoyant success stems from a voice nearly silenced in youth.

The Malian singer, now hailed as “The Golden Voice of Africa,” is descended from royalty, yet he was born in disgrace: An albino in a country where light skin is considered sinful (the stone slabs upon which albinos and other outcasts were once sacrificed still exist in his village), Keita was ostracized by his horrified father, until a prediction by the village spiritual leader revealed that the boy would grow up to be famous.

The future singer attended a training school for teachers, but turned to music after weak eyes hindered his studying. Outraged again at his son’s wayward tendencies, Keita’s father once more cast him out of the house.

Keita survived life on the streets to become a national treasure. After stints with the Rail Band and Les Ambassadeurs, he took refuge in Paris, a city he called home for the next decade, as he worked his way toward becoming an international star.

These days, Keita fills concert halls on three continents and has garnered praise from unlikely sources, such as Rolling Stone magazine. Carlos Santana said of Keita’s 1987 album, Soro: “This should be number one in every country [in every genre].”

Though backed by a 10-piece band, The Wanda, Keita’s chilling, emotional voice is the true instrument of his fame.

Local percussionist Greg Cumberford enthuses about the West African’s “incredible world-class band,” but he knows that Keita’s singing is what packs his live shows: “It’s his voice, and the spirit that comes through the voice. He has such a presence onstage.”

The title of Keita’s widely-praised, most recent CD, Folon (Mango, 1995), literally means “the past” — and the song bearing that name honors Mali’s recent shift to democracy. But Keita is far from stuck in the past, says local middle-school teacher Gordon Grant, who recently decided, after hearing Folon, to bring a group of his students to Keita’s upcoming performance at UNCA.

“What I like about Salif Keita is he’s kind of [updating] the more traditional North African music — that high-pitched singing style –with high-energy jazz and rock,” Grant relates.

Grant strives to expose his students to kinds of music that they wouldn’t otherwise experience, but admits he’s careful in his selections.

“It can backfire,” he laughs, “and if they hate it, you’ll bomb.” But the Harlem Boys’ Choir was a recent hit, says the teacher, and he predicts that Keita’s lively style will also strike a chord with his students.

“Keita’s music is modern enough to be accessible for them,” he notes, adding, “It doesn’t matter [how old] you are — music can affect you in a powerful way, and you don’t have to intellectualize it [to like it].”

Keita, Grant reports happily, will arrive in Asheville just in time to accommodate the local seventh-grade curriculum.

“It’s a total accident, but this fits in perfectly with the seventh graders, who are studying Africa,” Grant says. “Kids can study Mali, then go and see [a Malian] singer.”

The teacher hopes Keita’s appearance will present a social lesson too — one that might benefit people of all ages.

“Keita underwent intense color discrimination in his own country,” Grant muses. “Kids [often don’t realize] that racial discrimination exists among groups [other than Americans] … that prejudice is prejudice.”

Multiculturalism, he laments, “has become [just] a buzzword today. It’s easy to say, but it’s hard to get kids to look beyond our culture. You identify country music with a certain type of person, rap music with a certain type of person: We get so insular. But as we increase communication, we’re all going to have to talk to each other, and music is a good metaphor. In the time it took for me to tell you what I just finished telling you, [my point] could have been jumped across with a good musical phrase.”

In a recent phone call to the Malian singer, an absent translator on Keita’s end resulted in another kind of creative communication: Undaunted, we managed a few minutes of discourse, despite the language barrier.

Asked when he first knew that he wanted to become a professional singer, Keita paused and revealed pragmatically: “I didn’t have another job, so it was the only thing for me.”

Given the multifaceted history of American popular music, it doesn’t surprise Keita that U.S. audiences embrace his sound. “They know about the rhythm and the melodies of African music,” he notes, adding that music “can do anything” — even cross oceans.

“People love music, even if they don’t understand [the words],” he declares. “I think [music] is like a knife. It pokes everything.”

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