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 he had built by the River Niger. As an albino, Keita once was disowned by his own father; as a musician, he was rejected by the aristocracy of his own caste; and as a man with ambition, he had no choice but to leave a country that offered no professional perspectives. Keita's career has led him on a wandering path, through Abidjan, New York and Paris. But his strength, talent and clairvoyance enabled him to find fame and fortune on that path, allowing for his symbolic and triumphant return to Mali.

This form of prejudice was recently featured as a front page story in the Wall Street Journal where Keita stated he is using his fame and wealth to improve the fortunes of other albinos and his goal is to make sure that albinos are treated like normal people.

Spiritually and musically, M'Bemba marks Keita's return his roots and history. Like its predecessor, Moffou, this record favors acoustic sounds. M'Bemba artfully blends all of the influences Keita has gathered during his long musical odyssey - including rock, soul, French chanson, Afro-Cuban rhythms - and presents that synthesis from a resolutely African perspective.

Keita was born in Djoliba, Mali, in August 1949. He is a direct descendent of Sounjata Keita, the warrior prince who consolidated the Malian empire in the 13th century. The third of 13 children, Salif was born an albino - a sign of bad luck. Keita's peers scorned and ridiculed him, and even his family shunned him. It was years before his father would speak to him. In response, Keita found his salvation in literature, study and most fortuitously, music. He developed a passion for the song of the griots, the wandering poets who traveled between townships telling local sagas and family odysseys - handing down the African tradition of storytelling from generation to generation.

Keita came from a noble family with a farming tradition, and music was exclusively for the caste of the griots. To choose the griots' path meant transgressing ancestral rules, and Keita knew doing so would only add to his alienation. Nonetheless, the young Keita was determined, and in the late 1960s, he left his family home for Bamako, Mali's capital city.

In Bamako, Keita's extraordinary vocal talents led him to the Rail Band, which played to audiences at the Hotel de la Gare. Keita moved on to join Les Ambassadeurs, a dance band led by Kante Manfila, at the Bamako Hotel. The band played an eclectic repertoire, including Anglo-Saxon pop, French songs and Afro-Cuban rhythms, while touring throughout West Africa. The Keita trademark sound and style were now established: keyboards, guitars and saxophones mingled with jazz, rock, funk and Afro-beat, along with traditional strings and percussion, to reshape the contours of ancestral rhythms and chants.

Because of political unrest, Keita left Mali in the mid-'70s for Abidjan, capitol of the Ivory Coast. The rest of the band followed, and they changed the bands name to Les Ambassadeurs Internationales. It was here that the group recorded Mandjou, which became a huge commercial success in 1978.

Keita's worldwide journey continued in 1980, when he spent three months in New York, recording the Primpin and Toukan albums. It continued in 1984, when he fulfilled a dream by moving from the Ivory Coast to Paris. There, he immersed himself in France's burgeoning African movement, joining African stars such as Mory Kante, Papa Wemba and Manu Dibango.

In Paris, Keita returned to the recording in 1987 to create Soro, an album featuring the Malinke language (the majority language of the Mande people). The album had a sparkling purity - Keita's first true masterpiece - and it was an enormous hit. In the same year, he was invited to perform in England at Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday party, where, working alongside such stars as Youssou N'Dour, Keita was quickly accepted into the circle of world music masters.

World tours followed, as well as the albums Ko-Yan (1988) and Amen (1991), which featured such luminaries as Wayne Shorter and Carlos Santana. Keita's prolific musical output continued throughout the '90s with Folon (1995), Sosie (1997) and the funky Papa (1999).

Beginning in 1997, Keita returned more and more frequently to Mali. Eventually, he opened a studio in Bamako, where he began producing young artists, including Fantani Touré. More recently, he has opened a club in Bamako called Moffou to promote the West African music scene.

Today, Keita is a Pan-African, an ardent anti-racist and pacifist, and a man of uncommon generosity who strives to build new bridges between Africa and the rest of the world. He is working to take a greater part in the destiny of his country - to encourage emigrants to return, and to protect and promote local artists by working toward the emancipation of African music. In other words, Keita hopes that one day African music can be conceived in Africa - rather than being recorded predominantly in Europe and America.

Looking back at Keita's life, it is no surprise that he has an optimistic vision for the future. Keita's childhood was full of struggles, and yet he became so much more than those who ridiculed him could have imagined. Fueled by the optimism that his own life has created within him, Keita aims to spread his message of hope through his music, through his actions and through his words.

Happiness isn't for tomorrow, Keita says. It's not hypothetical; it starts here and now...Nature has given us extraordinary things...Let's take advantage of the wonders of this continent at last - intelligently, in our own way, at our own rhythm, like responsible men proud of their inheritance. Let's build the country of our children, and stop taking pity on ourselves. Africa is also the joy of living, optimism, beauty, elegance, grace, poetry, softness, the sun and nature. Let's be happy to its sons, and fight to build our happiness.

Coumba Makalou email: info@COUMBA.COM