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|Malinese superstar Salif Keita, credited with being one of the unwitting founding fathers of Afro-Pop, is also a direct descendant of Sunjata Keita, the founder of the Mali Empire in 1240. Being a rare Albino negro born into superstitious surroundings that called for his death didn't ease his upbringing. Nor could have being disowned by his own father after announcing his caste-defying aspirations for a career as a musician.
A move to the capitol of Barnako proved the launching pad that eventually saw Keita and fellow musicians of the popular Mandingo/Cuban crossover formation Rail Band regroup as Les Amassadeurs Internationaux. A presidential recognition of the National Order of Guinea in 1977 underscored the developing artist's growing appeal and coincided with his discovery of black US icons Tina Turner, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. Emigrating into an expatriate community of Malian countrymen in the Montreuil section of Paris in 1984, Keita's subsequent debut album Soro in 1987 received strong recognition even from Rolling Stones magazine.
His 1991 Amen album with Carlos Santana and Wayne Shorter became the first record fronted by an African bandleader to win a Grammy nomination. On this year's Moffou, Keita is joined by two long-time collaborators, guitar legends Djelly Moussa Kouyaté and Kanté Manfila; omnipresent percussionist Mino Cinelu; accordionist Benoît Urbain; Arnaud Devos on steel-drums, harmonica and marimba; the bare-footed diva from the Cape Verde islands, Cesaria Evora; as well as traditional African percussionists Mamadou Kone, Adama Kouyate, Souleyman Doumbia, Drissa Bakayoko; Sayon Sissoko and Harouna Samake on the four-stringed n'goni lutes; and various other stringed guitar-relatives by Ekova's Mehdi Hassad and Jean-Louis Solans.
The title Moffou is also the name of a Barnako club which Salif Keita opened earlier this year to celebrate and promote the West African music scene. Reading into this connection a desire to return to his roots doesn't seem farfetched one you hear the album. It's a potent turnabout from electrified past sojourns into a simpler, more intimate setting of mostly gently lilting tunes with the occasional upbeat number for good measure and first-rate production values undoubtedly served by his European stay.
Moving effortlessly back and forth between the musical personas of Islamic muezzin calling out to prayer, ferocious warrior prince installing the fear of God in his enemies and fervent support in his own army, and inspired poet seducing with gentleness, Salif Keita's majestically soaring voice -- solo or amidst dense African-style chorus -- is the true highlight of Moffou and unequivocally reinstates his superstar status.
Like a movie script custom-tailored to exploit its leading actor's personality and unique gifts, the ten tunes of Moffou address, frame and spotlight the singer's special talents. Unsurprising when considering his age, there's a strong focus on medium-tempo numbers with sparser instrumentation that move Keita's gentler aspects into the foreground. His trademark delivery which -- though never spoken -- often suggests the recounting of tales, becomes a more intimate encounter with a tribal elder speaking from the fullness of a life lived well, accompanied simply by guitar or camele n'goni. The overriding musical message one takes away is one of life-affirming joy, a fitting message indeed in these troubled times. A true must-own for all lover of not just African music, but great music in general.