Salif Keita – The Golden Voice of Africa
From the rolling plains of Mali to the hills of Paris, Salif Keita is renowned for his unique soulful sound. His ability to keep his audience surprised has earned him a place as an Afro-pop legend, making a name for him in Africa and beyond.
But Salif Keita wasn’t always the Golden Voice of Africa. Born in Mali in 1949, Salif Keita is a descendant of Sunjata Keita, founder of the Mali Empire, and the third of thirteen children. Due to his albinism, Salif suffered abuse and discrimination from the superstitious society he was born into. Growing up, he had to be constantly protected by his mother from people who called for his death, believing that albinism brought bad luck. His troubles were compounded by the climate, with its relentless heat, and his poor eyesight. But this was not all that Salif would have to contend with. His family was opposed to his becoming a singer because according to Malian tradition, only members of the lower class could make a living from music. His was a noble, albeit poor, family, and Salif was forbidden from becoming a singer.
At age 18 Salif left his hometown for Bamako, where he worked as a street musician. He joined the Rail Band, which was based at the Bamako rail station hotel, and which has helped launch the careers of many notable singers. In 1973 Salif left the Rail Band and joined Les Ambassadeurs, which later became Les Ambassadeurs Internationale, and here he and the group developed a sound that bridged traditional Malian music with Western influences. In 1977 Salif Keita was awarded the National Order of Guinea by then Guinean president, Sekou Toure.
When Les Ambassadeurs Internationale broke up in 1984, Salif Keita moved to Paris and, three years later, launched the classic Soro album. He has since worked with musicians such as Wayne Shorter and Carlos Santana, and with the album entitled Amen, Salif became the first African band leader to be nominated for a Grammy.
Now based in Mali and Paris, Salif Keita is not slowing down. He tours with a band of 11 musicians and has big plans for the future. He also founded the Salif Keita Global Foundation which advocates for the rights and protection of albinos, in Africa in particular, where deeply entrenched traditions and superstitions often endanger their lives. As he says in the lyrics to his popular song, ‘La Difference’, ‘different does not mean bad’.