Worth the wait - all 25 years of it

Salif Keita's 'lost' album has finally been released, quarter of a century after it was made. Tim Cumming is mesmerised
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The Independent Culture

Apart from the people who were in the room at the time, actually making the rec-ord, no one seems to know a lot about Salif Keita's Lost Album, recorded with the guitarist Kante Manfila in Abidjan on the Ivory Coast in 1980, years before Keita became an international star. Three of the six tracks - all but one clocking in around the 10-minute mark - were released on vinyl in Nigeria, but it is only now, 25 years later, that these extraordinary acoustic sessions are being released in full by the French label Discovery.

Apart from the people who were in the room at the time, actually making the rec-ord, no one seems to know a lot about Salif Keita's Lost Album, recorded with the guitarist Kante Manfila in Abidjan on the Ivory Coast in 1980, years before Keita became an international star. Three of the six tracks - all but one clocking in around the 10-minute mark - were released on vinyl in Nigeria, but it is only now, 25 years later, that these extraordinary acoustic sessions are being released in full by the French label Discovery.

In the last few years, numerous African stars with a worldwide following - such as Mory Kante and Youssou N'Dour - have returned to an African-centred, acoustic-based explorations of the traditions behind the Afropop new wave that went global in the Eighties. Kante's Sabou, N'Dour's Egypt and Keita's 2002 album Moffou each marked a return to roots for stars who had internationalised that very music 15 or 20 years before.

What is fascinating about The Lost Album is both its context and its timing. The concept of roots music and of producing an acoustic album was a radical one when funk, pop and reggae were the rapidly growing and dominant forms for a new generation of African musicians. It's an album that makes more sense 25 years later, in the wake of Moffou's sublime acoustics, than it did at the time.

Keita was already famous in West Africa as the singer first for the Rail Band of Bamako, and then, after being ousted as singer by Mory Kante, he left with Guinean guitarist Kante Manfila, to form the Ambassadeurs. Both groups revelled in combining Afro-Cuban and native elements, with their classic line-up of electric guitar, balafon, kora and brass.

In 1977 he and Kante left Bamako, Mali's capital, for Abidjan, at that time one of the centres of a rapidly-expanding African music business. Mory Kante would also relocate there, adapting Western hits for African instruments, and playing them at the Climbie restaurant - where the likes of Barry White and James Brown would also perform. Under the guidance of producer Ibrahim Asillah, a good portion of the Eighties Afropop revolution would begin in Abidjan, and it was here, in 1980, that this lost acoustic album was conceived and recorded.

Lyrically, the songs extol Keita's pan-Africanism and pacifism, while musically, they are an acoustic weave of guitars, balafon, kora and trumpet. The 12-minute "Toura Makan" begins with a female call-and-response chorus, buoyed by insistent melody lines on balafon, through which weave the kora and guitar, and the mighty Malian blues holler of Keita's incredible voice. A lean, dry trumpet solo, sounding as if it is being played on the most sweetly mournful spot on earth, matches the trembling intensity of Keita's vocals. Behind them, the guitar and balafon combine in a rising and falling rhythm that's the musical equivalent of zero gravity.

Throughout, Keita's vocals are recorded with a heavy dose of echo, particularly on the mesmerising "Wara", the album's closing number, and the only one to include the electric guitar and brass section redolent of the Rail Band and Ambassadeurs. The cumulative effect of the interlocking balafon, guitar, brass and vocal lines make for a dramatic and unforgettable listening experience. It's a song that encapsulates where Salif Keita's music comes from, and its roots prior to the electronic innovations of the Eighties - some of which have dated more severely than any of the loose-limbed instrumental runs that have finally been unearthed.

Twenty-five years on, the album shows Salif Keita knew exactly where he was and where he had come from.

'Salif Keita: The Lost Album' is out on Discovery Records on 16 May

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