Sunday, June 6, 2010

In review--Dignity Matters

Salif Keita
La diffèrence

Imagine coming from a long lineage of West African aristocracy, but experiencing ostracism from parents, the community, teachers, and aristocracy. Imagine your father disowning you because you are different. And imagine if you had a musical talent handed down to you through your lineage that you are forbidden to express because of you are different, and then you would come close to describing Malian griot musician Salif Keita’s life story. Keita was born to 2 black Malian parents, but is white because Keita was born albino. Albinism is seen as an omen by Malians and albinos experience their share of prejudice and injustice based on the lack of pigmentation in their skin.

While albinism caused Keita to suffer through his childhood and beyond, his determination and passion for music lead him to a successful music career (which he pursued outside of Mali) and his pursuit of justice for albinos (so that they can acquire education and healthcare). The griot’s newest recording, La difference goes beyond speaking out for human justice, the musician also speaks out (like a true griot) for the environment too. Since we are not provided English translations for the songs, an uninformed listener might think they’re just hearing soaring griot vocals over a background of traditional Malian instruments and kora-like guitar. The musical arrangements with a touch of exotic Middle Eastern instruments (oud, percussion and Arabic strings), and the women backup vocals seem uplifting on many tracks which can lead a listener astray. Heavy sentiments appear on this album, which can definitely be heard on the final track, Papa with its bluesy backdrop and aching vocals sung on the chorus.

The celebrated musician dusts off some of his classics Folon, Seydou Bathily and Djèlè (which features the famed balafon master Keletigui Diabatè) and gives them new arrangements. Seydou features lush Arabic strings and Folon has been slowed down and the horn deleted. Gaffou features Keita’s passionate vocals framed by women backup singers and layered kora-like guitars. While Ekolo d’Amour might be mistaken for an upbeat love song, it is in fact pointing out environmental devastation in Mali. San Ka Na also falls into the ecological justice realm and speaks about government disregard for the Niger River where Keita played (on its banks) as a child.

Keita proves that beautifully arranged music and provocative social messages get on nicely. And in a way La Diffèrence celebrates diversity that calls out for justice, whether that includes the diversity of skin color or diversity of the earth. Keita represents a man who has experienced destruction in many forms and yet, he has taken his talent to the world and created a forum to help other albinos through his foundation (he founded in 2001) as well as, help the planet.

In his lyrics to the title track Keita cites, “Let everyone receive love and dignity. The world will be a more beautiful place.” Some people speak of rainbows that include all skin colors united and no matter a person’s difference (we’re all different in some way), celebrating differences also creates a beautiful place.

All proceeds from the sale of La Diffèrence will be funneled through Keita’s foundation, Salif Keita pour les Albinos. So if you want to support an excellent cause and acquire beautiful Malian music, then I urge you to purchase this album.

For information about Salif Keita’s North American tour dates in June, go to

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