As reported last time, there is plenty of music going being played publically in Malian cities, especially Bamako, despite a State of Emergency. But the impression is deceptive. Crowds at nightclubs are thin. There are almost no foreign visitors to support clubs, festivals and concerts.
While street weddings are on, the families who sponsor them have less to spend, and are more and more inclined to cut costs by hiring lower-rung artists, often not griots as they would have been in the past, and there is less money changing hands. For musicians, there is hardly any point in recording, unless you are one of the lucky few to have an international career. Cellphone technology has made swapping music files so easy that even the pirates who used to undermine artistic careers with cheap cassettes and CDs have a hard time making sales.
In January and February, I made my fifth visit to Bamako, Mali. It was the first time back in ten years, and I was there with Sean Barlow to research new programs for Afropop Worldwide. We were especially interested to see how musicians’ lives had been affected in the aftermath of tumultuous events in 2012 and 2013 – namely, a rebellion in the north, eight months of sharia law under which music was banned in northern cities like Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, a coup d’etat in Bamako, French military action to restore the nation’s sovereignty, and fraught elections bringing a new, fragile civilian government to power.
Salif Keita‘s voice is one other mortals can only aspire to. A searing tenor that somehow sounds gritty and glorious all at once, it’s a complicated instrument that transcends language barriers, and with its subtle shadings offers solace and succor, joy and even redemption. It’s not for nothing that Keita is known as the golden voice of Mali.
Given Salif Keita’s incredible talent, it was inevitable that one day music would take him back to his homeland, despite the hardships he once faced there. Recently, that inevitability came to pass. With a 35-year career behind him, Keita returned home to record his latest release, M’Bemba, in Bamako in the studio “Moffou” he had built by the River Niger.