Cultivating his land. A foundation devoted to the welfare of a neglected population. Fish farms. Plans for a factory to manufacture skin creams. These are some of the concerns on the mind of Salif Keita.
And still, without losing a step, his music. At 65, the Malian singer with the ethereal voice and hugely influential career — from debonair bands of the 1970s that revolutionized West African sound, through the glossy world-music of the 1980s and 1990s and then back to the roots — is making work at a steady clip and in tune with the moment. His latest album, “Talé” (2012), featured appearances by British rapper Roots Manuva and American bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding.
At the moment, however, Keita is looking back. This summer he toured Europe with a reunion line-up of Les Ambassadeurs, the group he fronted from 1973 to the early 1980s, based first in Bamako, the Malian capital, and later in Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
And all this year, first in Europe and now America, Keita is playing classics from his repertoire with a newly-assembled seven-piece group, including two backup singers. Billed as an acoustic show (although expect Keita’s longtime sidekick Ousmane Kouyaté to grab an electric guitar at some point), the tour hits the Sinclair September 16.
It doubles as a fund-raiser for Keita’s foundation, which provides services for people with albinism. Keita, who is albino, puts much of his energy into the well-being of others with the condition — a melanin deficiency that leaves them with pinkish skin and exposes them to a high risk of skin cancer, and often stigma.
A conversation with Keita, speaking in French by phone from Bamako, weaves between warm memories of the past and today’s political and social crises.
The Ambassadeurs tour, initiated by keyboardist Cheick Tidiane Seck, was “a return to our roots, absolutely,” Keita says. But it was equally bittersweet, as the band, a mix of original and new members, dedicated its journey to the memory of veterans who are now deceased, like the guitarist Kanté Manfila, who died in 2011.
“It was an homage to the disappeared; so many people are no longer here,” Keita says. “But there was also a great deal of joy, because we were picking up the songs that we made and the energy that we felt together so many years ago.”
Some of Keita’s great songs were written for Les Ambassadeurs, an urbane large ensemble that played in their its home club in the Motel de Bamako to the country’s government, business and cultural elite, until political turmoil displaced them to Abidjan.
“Djandjon” drew on ancient chants from Malinke culture, the ethnic and linguistic group that Keita comes from, which traces its roots back to the medieval Mali Empire, and now spans parts of Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast, and several other modern states.
“Mandjou” was a tribute to Guinea’s president Sekou Touré, at the time an icon of African liberation. These and other songs, including “Koulandjan” and “Namanamani,” became feedstock for Keita’s solo career, appearing on his 1980s albums. His later output grew so prolific that these gems became underplayed — a situation he is now rectifying.
“There is magic in acoustic music; it makes me think of the past,” Keita says. “It’s a pleasure to work on these older songs with people who didn’t participate in them.”
One of those people is Mamadou Sidiki Diabaté, Keita’s 31-year-old kora player, who has performed extensively with Seck and in international collaborations with Damon Albarn and Dee Dee Bridgewater, but had yet to play with Keita till now.
“I grew up with his classics,” Diabaté says, reached in Bamako right after a rehearsal. “I’ve been inspired by these numbers ever since my early childhood. I always said that playing with him would be realizing one of my dreams. He’s a great artist who gives a lot of freedom to his musicians, even though we are younger than him. The music dwells in our feelings, and we have the freedom to find it.”
The presence of the 21-stringed kora and the ngoni, the banjo’s ancestor, gives this group an unusually traditional feel. Keita’s bands seldom feature these instruments, which have deep history among griots, the praise-singers and oral historians of Malinke culture. (Diabaté, the younger brother of kora master Toumani Diabaté, says they are the 71st generation in their family’s griot line.)
Keita descends from Sundiata, the 13th-century founder of the Mali Empire and subject of one of the world’s great epic poems. Famously, Keita broke caste rules by becoming a musician — a role reserved for griots and unfit for royalty. Now, Diabaté says, the band is like a court in itself, with Keita as king and the other players his griots.
Keita’s even greater triumph, however, is to have achieved superstardom as an albino, and this singularity weighs on him and inspires him to give back. “It’s very close to my heart,” he says.
Albinos are scattered and often isolated, especially in rural areas. In addition to occasional lurid attacks — in some countries, there are reports of ritual kilings — they have health needs that are expensive and require services that are out of reach.
“Many suffer from advanced skin cancer,” Keita says. “When we look into getting them care we get quoted as much as 200,000 euros for surgery overseas. It’s too expensive.”
One of Keita’s goals is to supply protective creams to every albino in Mali and its neighboring countries. “We’re basically talking about sunscreens,” he explains. “But they are imported and expensive. So that is part of our project: We have some land outside Bamako where we plan to put a manufacturing facility.”
Diabaté says the charitable goal is important to the bandmembers too. “That’s why we’re all here. We all set aside other things in order to do this. Because albinos are fully a part of our society.”Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.