With the confidence that only a living legend can display, Salif Keita began on the quietest of notes. A cluster of white spotlights was focused on him as he sat centre stage with an acoustic guitar for a gentle solo rendition of "Ana Na Ming". It was surprising to see the Malian superstar dressed down in faded-grey denim shirt and matching trousers along with his trademark skullcap. He looked like some kind of austere Communist leader: fist clenched, barrel-bellied but rock-solid, and cleaving the air with an intensely powerful voice that both pleaded and commanded at the same time.
On the second song, "Yamore", he was joined by two female backing vocalists. And then it was time to really get the party started. The two guitarists, two percussionists, bassist, camele n'goni player and drummer took up their positions and, although we were only on the third song of the set, Keita had us nailed. (There was also a male dancer, with mile-long limbs and flyaway costumes, who leapt on and off stage throughout.) Smiling knowingly, he announced with gentle sarcasm: "I know British people, they love dancing. Please, please, stand up."
This is the way to do it: don't wait until five minutes before the end to instruct us to have fun; let's start as we mean to go on. From here on in, our honourable leader delivered a string of his funkiest material, including "Ladji", "Kamoukie" and "Madan". Every time the audience thought they could safely fall back into their seats, another hard and fast gem followed.
No one is better than Keita at creating those unstoppable, tumbling-downhill grooves. They always give the dizzying impression that they're speeding up when they're simply gaining in intensity. By the end, there were about 50 audience members on the stage, and our noble leader was rolling on his back like a baby while still singing his heart out. And then, in his solo spot, the camele n'goni player outdid Hendrix by demonstrating there are many more positions to play the instrument in than there are to play a Fender Stratocaster in. This peerless band didn't just create a wall of sound, they generated a richly embroidered tapestry of overlapping, intertwining elements that managed to be both intriguingly delicate and determinedly tough.
By way of contrast, the generic Afro-jazz of the support act, Richard Bona, sounded like it belonged on a CD entitled African Moods lurking in the New Age section of your local megastore. There is no doubt that Bona is a virtuoso bass player (past work with Paul Simon, Manu Dibango, Tito Puente and Keita himself attest to that), but this polite saunter through an ersatz African savannah was something that belonged in the Eighties. His more-than-competent band produced the kind of music that is designed to impress other musicians, but the bubbling bass, courteously wah-wah-ed guitar, smoothly rippling sax and sickly synths were never going to get this London audience going. One song even began with cosy keyboard chords that momentarily threatened to become Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" before acquiring a slightly more African vibe. It conjured up images of panicked, Disneyesque lions aboard a slowly sinking Titanic. Things livened up a little towards the end of the set, as Bona squared up to deliver some muscular slap-bass, but the end couldn't come soon enough.
Perversely, at the close of Salif Keita's set, there were no farewell waves, no "thank you, London!". The crowd on the stage were quickly and efficiently dispersed as soon as the final song died away, and Keita and his magical band mysteriously vanished with them. But the audience was drained and happy; in fact, it was a perfectly effective and subversively dramatic way to end what was, despite stiff competition from Ali Farka Touré and Amadou and Mariam, unquestionably the African gig of the year.Reuse content