Salif Keita, 58, a 40-year veteran of the music scene, numbers among Africa's top musical stars. A man in motion, Salif is constantly touring and preaching his humanitarian message. Born into a royal family, Salif found himself barred by social custom from becoming a musician and as an albino, Salif was an outcast who found his means of expression through music. Fleeing a Malian dictatorship to take refuge in the Ivory Coast, he later moved to Paris but has since returned to Mali. Here, he has built a recording studio and nightclub in the capital of Bamako and used it to produce his most recent CD. Not fully accepted, Salif remains on the nation's cultural periphery and still fights for the underdog. Salif runs a foundation aiding albinos. He has told reporter Rosa Shiels of Christchurch, New Zealand's The Press, "The time of war is over. Waging violence and wars don't pay any more. I think it is far more clever to do music."
And Salif is expert at doing just that. As part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival, he brought his eight-person band to Bruno's, a music club in San Francisco's North Beach, for two shows on a Saturday night. Salif sings in Malinka, a dialect of the Manding group of languages - prevalent but not predominant in many West African nations including Salif's Mali, Guinea, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast. He sings in a language incomprehensible to most of his audience, but he more than holds his own, given the prodigious strength of his highly accomplished voice.
His accomplished musicians included two backup singers, two dynamic guitarists, a drummer (who plays cymbals as well as African drums, a conga player and a third percussionist, one who played the calabash, a gourd covered with goatskin, miked underneath, and tapped rapid fire. The instruments melded to create a thick, complex polyrhythmic sound. Dancing was encouraged, but given the tight confines of Bruno's, it was difficult. Although the audience is by-and-large enthralled, several people were texting. The musicians all took solos and after encores, the hour-and-a-half show concludes. The audience exits, doubtless wishing they had tickets to the second set as well.