Keita’s final album features everyone from Angélique Kidjo to Alpha Blondy, but it’s his vocals that stand out
Salif Keita, the most adventurous, gloriously soulful male singer-songwriter in Africa, has decided to retire at 69 – at least from recording. This is his 14th studio album, and, he says, his last, after an extraordinary career in which he has transformed the music of the continent. Since his days with Mali’s legendary Rail Band, his solo work has included everything from the electronica and keyboard-backed breakthrough solo set Soro in 1987, to less happy jazz funk albums, exquisite semi-acoustic sets Moffou and M’Bemba, and a collaboration with Gotan Project’s Philippe Cohen Solal, who produced his last offering, Talé, six years ago. The title of this final album translates as Another White, in reference to his early struggles as an albino musician (also the theme of his 2009 album La Différence). Although it includes the autobiographical Lerou Lerou, it is dominated by praise songs – to God, mothers, hunters and … a friend who gave him a plane.
This self-produced release is aimed at the commercial mainstream, with the throbbing backing dominated by keyboards, guitars and horns pitched against female backing singers and occasional flurries of the kora. There are too many collaborations, with Angélique Kidjo and rapper MHD appearing on the cluttered Itarafo and Alpha Blondy contributing to the reggae track Mansa Fo La, though Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s rousing harmony vocals are a welcome addition to the semi-acoustic Ngamale.
What makes Un Autre Blanc distinctive and special is Keita’s vocal work. He is on compelling form throughout, from the soaring, pained anti-war song Syrie to the magnificent Tiranke, on which he switches from thoughtful passages to bursts of controlled power, with backing provided by ngoni and his own acoustic guitar. If this truly is his last recording, he’ll be badly missed.
Also out this month
Also from Mali, the world’s finest ngoni band, Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba, return with Miri, an engagingly laid-back set in which Bassekou’s wife, Amy Sacko, is joined by male singers including Afel Bocoum. And Tartit, Mali’s finest female-led desert blues band are back after 12 years and still in hypnotic form, with Amankor/The Exile. From New Orleans, Leyla McCalla’s The Capitalist Blues is a gloriously varied blend of local jazz, zydeco and calypso, with reminders of her Haitian roots and angry new protest songs.