Baby Gets Back

Several common perceptions of Salif Keita already seem to come from another world. His 1987 solo debut, Soro, is one of the most overpraised world-music "classics." Fussy and fancy, with Keita's knockout voice curling through the somber air, it's exactly what the good-taste crowd expects of elite pop stars from any country. One wonders how many Soro advocates were familiar with Keita's '70s work with Les Ambassadeurs or, more important, the funky Rail Band de Bamako. Keita kept going for more classy credentials when he needed more punch—which he wasn't going to get from producers like Joe Zawinul.

Word also has it that Keita can give slack, distracted concerts. In three tries I have yet to see one, but without question his latest round of shows debuting material on Papa raised ire among the faithful. He was supposedly getting bad advice about how to grow his audience and was diluting his precious musical fluids with "New York session players." Judging from the show I saw in the spring and from Papa, dilution amounts to developing a brilliant, Westernized or not, relation to trap drums (by Curtis Watts and Ben Perowski) and bass lines (from Henry Schroy). Keita, like Mahal, has also altered his vocal attack. There's more James Brown in the supersonic wails of the boogie-eulogy "Bolon" than Keita has ever shown. The next track, "Mama," sounds like a miraculous outtake from the Talking Heads' Naked. The big ballad "Ananamin" has conventionally pretty lineaments, but there's none of the face-in-the-mud desperation that plagued, say, Youssou N'Dour and Neneh Cherry's "7 Seconds." The fretful New York mix on "Together (Gnokon Fe)" and Ver non Reid's guitar buzzing like a p-funked wasp at the climax must be part of the dilution that offended the faithful, though similar noise science has long poured from the other guitar lead, long-term Keita partner Ousmane Kouyate. Keita has gotten back without consciously intending it.

Papa is unlike any Keita release, but it presents him where he once belonged: out of the PBS-special orbit and back, not just into the Rail Band mode, but all the way to the era of Manu Dibango's "Soul Makossa." In that time of fluid boundaries, modern African performers were citizens on the wide, crass, speaking-in-tongues streets of urban international, a place where polyglot funk and a comely ballad can make a buck without anyone checking for proper credentials. Other voices that echo to the clouds, like Youssou N'Dour and Baba Maal, have dropped into urban international with out finding permanent lodging. Maybe Salif Keita should move in with Ver non Reid for another album and do them both some good.


Ali Farka Toure

Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate

Salif Keita
Metro Blue

Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate play Central Park Summerstage August 14.

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