Veteran Afro-pop singer and songwriter Salif Keita is set to perform at Botswana Craft next Thursday (April 30) in what will be his second show at the venue in four years. The Malian first performed at Botswana craft in September 2011 when he shared the stage with Banjo Mosele.
Before then his last visit to Botswana was more in the late nineties, more than a decade ago. An internationally acclaimed master of West African rhythms who is credited as one of the pioneers of Afro-pop, Keita is well known for his spectacular live performances, soaring vocals and his emotionally-fuelled songs. During his last show at Botswana craft he played mostly songs from his album ‘La Difference’ before moving onto his more familiar songs that have entrenched him into the memories of many Batswana and made him a household name. His music especially songs ‘Mandela’ and ‘Africa’ from his 1995 album, Folon…The Past, always awaken the pride of being African and the need for a united Africa. In light of the recent xenophobic attacks that have been taking place in South Africa, Keita’s message may just be the perfect reminder of the spirit of togetherness that has for generations brought Africans together regardless of nationality or geographical heritage.
Born in Mali in 1949, Salif is a descendant of Sunjata Keita, who founded the Mali Empire in 1240. He was the third of thirteen children born to Sina Keita, a landowner in the village of Djoliba, where he grew up, near Mali’s capital, Bamako. Born albino in a land of blistering sun and heat, with limited eyesight and poor despite his social standing, his mother had to hide him to avoid the attacks of the superstitious crowds who called for his death. In addition to the problems of growing up as an albino, Keita’s family was opposed to his passion for singing because the traditions of his ancestry excluded members of the nobility from becoming singers.
His decision to become a musician broke an important taboo as in Mali only the lower Jeli class makes its living from music. He left Djoliba for Bamako in 1970 at the age of 18 where he spent time as a street musician and playing in bars before joining a group called Rail Band.
In 1973, Keita left the Rail Band, and with guitarist Kante Manfila he joined Les Ambassadeurs, which later became Les Ambassadeurs International. The new group developed the fusion between traditional music and western electric influences. 1977 saw Salif Keita being awarded the National Order of Guinea by Sekou Toure, the Guinean President. By that time, Salif Keita had also discovered American singers like Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Tina Turner. Their powerful way of singing and presence on stage taught Keita a lot about live performances.
Restricted by the limited opportunities and political climate in Mali, the group moved south and set up base in Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, where they performed and recorded successfully during the late 1970s. In 1984 Les Ambassadeurs Internationales broke up, and Salif Keita moved to Paris, launching a career that saw him recording the classic Soro album in 1987, produced by Ibrahim Sylla. A recording deal with Island Records followed, which resulted in the release of the album Ko yan in 1989 that led directly to Keita’s collaboration with Weather Report keyboard man, composer and arranger Joe Zawinul in 1990.
With help from Carlos Santana, Wayne Shorter and a number of carefully picked musicians from Mali and France, Zawinul produced Amen, the album that made Keita the first African band leader to win a Grammy nomination. Keita is coming back to Botswana courtesy of Orange Botswana in association with Botswana Craft, Ministry of Youth Sport and Culture, and UNESCO. Thursday April 30 will also mark UNESCO’s International Jazz Day 2015. In November 2011, UNESCO officially designated April 30 as International Jazz Day in order to highlight jazz and its diplomatic role of uniting people in all corners of the globe.