African Royalty Sings
Ever since his first international album Soro (1987), albino singer Salif Keita has combined elements of his Malian heritage with the trappings of Western pop. A griot whose ancestors include the warrior kings who founded the Mandingo empire, Keita nearly hit a golden mean right away with the critically acclaimed Soro, a relentlessly energetic set that proved he was capable of entertaining thousands in his homeland one night and revelers in Paris the next.
Soro was something special at the time—mostly because of Keita's keening, infinitely expressive vocals. The album hasn't aged well: Its liberal use of synthesizers and a loud, too-busy horn section interfere with its outbreaks of vocal genius. Unfortunately, those same high-gloss Western pop sounds have defined many of Keita's follow-up efforts. Though he's got one of the world's truly special voices, Keita—who as an albino youth was ostracized by his family and later disowned by his father for becoming an entertainer—has not used it with discretion, at times chasing a global-party ethos that exists mainly on Putumayo compilations.
Somewhere along the way Keita evidently realized he was squandering his gift, and not doing the griot's work of carrying on the stories of his people. Moffou (2002) represents a huge course correction: It's a stripped-down affair built on hand percussion and acoustic instruments, with moody expanses that inspire some of Keita's most stirring improvisations. First he sings the melodies of "Yamore" and "Moussoldu" as though they were hymns. Then, as the music loosens up, he begins to embellish the stories he's telling with his voice—adding troubled sighs, or soaring leaps into his clarion (and seemingly endless) upper register. These have very little in common with Keita's earlier attempts at crossover. They're wise and often sad laments that find Keita abandoning Afro-pop showbiz in order to share, griot-like, the heritage of his people.