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Wednesday, May 29, 2002

HIGH NOTES

Salif Keita: 'Moffou'


By TOM BOJKO

Salif Keita -- otherwise known as the Golden Voice of Mali -- has taken some jabs from world music purists in recent years for straying from his traditional African roots in collaborations with the likes of Vernon Reid of Living Color and the keyboardist Joe Zawinal. With "Moffou," Keita has dropped all pretenses and returned to music that is entirely African in inspiration.

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"Moffou" ranges from gently rollicking arrangements featuring a large band to stark pieces that find Keita singing alone, accompanying himself on guitar. At its fullest, the band is 18-strong with churning African percussion, twinkling string instruments and a tantalizing chorus, as well as acoustic and electric guitars, electric bass, a droning accordion and, hovering on top of it all, a playful flute.

The opening song, "Yamore," is a duet with Cesaria Evora that beautifully captures the Cape Verdean diva's bittersweet vibe. "Madan" features the entire band with both Keita and the chorus roaring at full throttle. "Baba" is the one tune where the hand of the studio production is directly felt -- and the flourishes are made to great effect, opening with the wind evoking the vast emptiness of the Sahel and a well-timed delay on the n'goni (a Malian lute) causing the plucked notes to echo across the sands.

Like the production, the arrangements on "Moffou" were crafted with a light touch. While the band is at times quite large, the music is simple, relaxed and stately, and the different instruments drop in only where they are needed. To give just a taste, the piano arpeggios at the end of "Yamore" offer a sense of hope; the marimba flourish in the middle of "Baba" leads up to the chorus like steps to an altar; and the flute hovers intermittently on "Koukou" in fluttering counterpoint.

Keita followed a very unusual path to world music superstardom. As a direct descendent of Sunjata Keita, the founder of the Mande Empire -- which includes much of present-day Mali and Guinea -- Salif was a noble from birth, whereas musicians in Mali are normally born into the lowly griot caste. But two things made Keita different from other nobles; first, he is an albino, which made him an outcast and, second, he cannot see very well, which prevented him from utilizing his training as a schoolteacher. With limited options, he pursued the one talent that he was sure of: By the time he was 23, he was perhaps the most famous singer in Mali, having fronted both of the two most popular bands of the day, the Rail Band and Les Ambassadeurs du Motel. Following that local fame, he made his way to Paris in a move that soon catapulted him onto the world stage.

If you have never listened to Salif Keita's music, "Moffou" is a good place to start.



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