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He Needs No Interpreter

Salif Keita doesn't worry if you don't understand the words to his African songs. The singer has become a force in the ever-evolving global arena by speaking with emotions that go beyond language.

April 21, 1996|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is a regular contributor to Calendar

The voice of Salif Keita is what hits you first. It's a penetrating tenor with the power to cut through the most profuse thicket of rhythm.

It is a sound so powerful that it takes a few moments before his remarkable visual impact also comes into focus: Stark white skin, soft, reddish blond hair, luminous dark eyes glistening behind white eyelashes.

Keita, one of the great treasures of African music, is an albino from Mali.

No wonder his listeners are mesmerized from the moment he walks on stage.

"To me, when I come out, it's like a prayer," says Keita. "People have come to give love and to get love, and I can't let them down. It's what their presence demands--emotion and feeling."

On Saturday, Keita will appear at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater in his first local performance since early 1994. The program will feature material from " 'Folon' . . . The Past," his album on Mango Records that has been high on the world music charts since its release in November.

And it won't matter that the meaning of his words will elude much of the audience.

"What matters most," says Keita, "is how you present yourself on stage. The way you convey the rhythm, the melody--just the way you are on stage.

"Whether the words are understood is second in importance. I know that many of my listeners are driven to understand what I'm talking about, and they will eventually learn the meaning of the words. But what is most important is that I communicate with them emotionally."

The first African bandleader to win a Grammy nomination (for "Amen" in 1991), Keita has been for nearly two decades one of the major acts in world music. His charismatic presentations, layering Western horns and keyboards with the traditional sounds and rhythms of Mali, are passionate outpourings of feeling. His singing is rich with the primal elements that link emotionally expressive R&B shouters to the praise singing of African griots, communicating with a universal connectivity that reaches beyond the barriers of language and national borders.

"There are pieces I compose," Keita says in a phone interview from his home in Paris, "that are conceived for joy. And there are pieces that are intended to reflect a spiritual message. But what's most important to remember is that even music that makes you dance can have a spiritual quality."

Keita's popularity has expanded to worldwide proportions, even though very few listeners--outside of Africa and France--comprehend the West African languages (mixed with French) in which he sings.

But his capacity to reach such a wide audience is not unusual in the volatile arena of world music, which has been undergoing many changes in the past few years.

Two factors are having the greatest impact.

First, the heterogeneity of musical interests around the world, always diverse, has become even more eclectic in recent years.

Second, many regions are showing an increased tendency to support their local artists.

On the first point, other parts of the world are receptive to an enormously colorful array of sounds--while the U.S. market has rarely responded to songs in languages other than English.

The fact that there is a category for world music at all may say more about American cultural chauvinism than it does about any sort of all-inclusive identification. World music is simply the 85% or so of the global sounds that are not American, ranging from roots music to the latest slick international pop. Anyone who has spent time overseas knows that listening to the radio in other nations can open a cornucopia of musical delights not often heard in this country.

To note only a few examples: African music, perhaps the richest, most varied music in the world, is played almost as widely as American pop throughout Europe. Jazz continues to be heard in Europe, Japan and many of the former Soviet Bloc countries. Parts of Asia tend to embrace balladeers. Rock music and heavy metal are surfacing in Russia and China. Locally, Los Angeles has seen overflow crowds for acts such as Argentina's Mercedes Sosa and Cape Verde's Cesaria Evora.

Clearly, as Keita noted, effective performances, on records and on stage, are not just about the words of a song.

Business Week magazine recently reported that Mexico's Luis Miguel, singing in Spanish, sold 500,000 albums in Korea, where he was voted top international artist of the year. Michael Learns to Rock, a Danish rock band, sold 2 million albums in Asia, including 500,000 in Japan, and Italy's Laura Pausini has become a major star in South America.

"The music I listened to when I was young came from every part of the world," says Keita. "First it was Latin music, Cuban big bands--very influential in Africa in the '60s. Then it was jazz. In fact, 'Mandjou' was recorded with [the band] Les Ambassadeurs, who did virtually nothing but jazz and improvisation. I also listened to Pink Floyd and James Brown. After that, rhythm & blues, Barry White and, always, lots of European music."

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