Salif Keita: The nomad returns

Salif Keita is back in Mali after more than 25 years abroad. He tells Martin Longley what it means to him

That is not to say that a preponderance of synthesizers and programmed drums did too much damage: Keita's music was attempting (and mostly succeeding in) a fusion process that utilised rock guitars, jazz keyboards and a funk rhythm section. He invited Weather Report's Joe Zawinul and Living Colour's Vernon Reid to produce two of his albums in the Nineties, but the innate quality of Malian music was never lost, not least because Keita's transcendent vocals were always right at the core.

Now, Keita is in London for a day, holding court in preparation for his new album, M'Bemba (meaning "ancestor", in the Bambara language). These sessions consolidate the re-established acoustic approach, but harness a much fuller sound, emphasising rhythmic density with a run of pulsating songs.

My interview is conducted via an interpreter, although Keita's English sounds reasonable enough when he chooses to take a break from French. I ask him about his recent return to Bamako, where he's opened a recording studio and a live music club. "I've come home now," he says. "I've been a nomad since 1978. This is too long a time to be away from Mali: I've been everywhere, gathering life's experience, and now that I've grown older, I feel comfortable about returning."

A large part of what makes this move possible is the newly democratised nature of the country. Even though the slow, painful process began over a decade ago, it has only reached fruition in the past three years. Mali now has a government that welcomes artistic expression.

There were other factors that forced Keita's exile. He was shunned by his father because he was born an albino, said to be a sign of bad fortune. And as a teenager, he found his musical ambitions opposed from several quarters.

In Mali, musicians belong to families of griots, itinerant storytellers who rely on the patronage of the wealthy elite. He is apparently descended directly from Sundiata Keita, the founder of the Mandingo Empire in the 13th century. For Keita to pursue music himself, not belonging to the griot line, he would be setting himself up in opposition to the family that had already rejected him, breaking the rules of tradition. Eventually, Keita was reconciled with his father, before his death in 1995.

"In my formative years," says Keita. "I picked up some copycat guitar technique from one of my teachers at school. My voice came naturally. The style was in the traditional vein, but I began writing my own material right from the start." Choosing a musical path was almost deemed a necessity, because poor eyesight was making his other studies almost impossible. He started playing music while waiting until he found a "real" job. Keita laughs, saying that he's remained in that state to this day.

He was doing exactly what he wanted, playing his own songs as a solo performer. Then, he had his first break, with the state-sponsored Super Rail Band, whose emissaries would scout the bars and hotels, looking for potential talent.

Two years later, in 1972, Keita and the guitarist Kante Manfila would leave the Rail Band to join Les Ambassadeurs, the house band at the Bamako Hotel. Manfila is still working with Keita today, having arranged the songs on M'Bemba. Another guitarist, Ousmane Kouyate, was also a member of Les Ambassadeurs, and he guests on the new album.

As Keita no longer feels alienated by his homeland, he also makes a point of stressing that he hasn't become disenchanted with life in Paris, and mentions that his children have remained in France to finish their studies. Keita's studio in Bamako has now been open for two years, and it allows him to adopt a completely different approach to the recording process.

"I can avoid the stress of entering an expensive Paris studio, being pressurised to work quickly and being forced to make ultimate decisions about the direction of each track. Now, I'm able to lay down new songs when the inspiration strikes me, expand on their structure over a period of weeks."

Gradually, he'll build up layers of percussion or acoustic guitars. Keita didn't want to follow the style of Moffou too closely, which is why he's constructed such a solid framework for M'Bemba. On this new album, most of the songs feature an average of four acoustic guitarists, along with bass, percussion, oud and camele n'goni, this latter instrument being a harp-lute, like a smaller version of the more familiar kora. Most of the album's musicians will be going out on Keita's lengthy European tour.

Keita has also opened a club in Bamako which is named after the Moffou album. Could this be along similar lines to The Shrine, Fela Kuti's club in Nigeria? Keita laughs: "My place is nowhere near as crazy as that! It's devoted to drinking and dancing, but the environment is much less intense."

'M'Bemba' is out now on Universal. Salif Keita plays at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester (17 November) and the Barbican, London EC2 (18 November)

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