Review: Salif Keita, Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow

Salif Keita, Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, review

Salif Keita, the ‘Golden Voice of Africa’, reaffirms himself as one of the world’s leading pop musicians at Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket, writes Mark Brown.

Mali is in the headlines as the location of a bloody and worryingly international conflict. But the West African state also deserves to be noted as one of the continent’s musical powerhouses. The late and legendary Ali Farka Touré hailed from Mali, as does Toumani Diabaté, the extraordinary player of the kora, or West African harp.

Perhaps Mali’s most famous musical son, however, is Salif Keita. Hailed as the “Golden Voice of Africa” due to his distinctive, soaring style, he has been one of the greatest singers, not only of African popular music, but of the entire global pop scene over the past three decades.

The 63-year-old reaffirmed that reputation in this concert, one of the closing performances of Glasgow’s acclaimed folk, roots and world music festival Celtic Connections. The singer, arriving in Scotland on the eve of French President François Hollande’s visit to Mali’s capital (and Keita’s hometown) Bamako, wasn’t here to talk politics but to give a masterclass in extending a pop music career with dignity.

Ever since he came to global prominence in the early Eighties, Keita has combined the instruments of the rich West African tradition (such as the kora and the calabash gourd drum) with electric guitars and electronic sounds. So it was at the Old Fruitmarket, where Keita’s young and talented band gave the all-standing audience plenty of reasons to dance.

The set was dominated by the kind of high-tempo roots/pop fusion that has characterised West African music since the days of Nigerian superstar Femi Kuti and Afrobeat. Only the most fastidious live-music purist would object to the use of two MacBooks, on which one of the band members created the electronic component of Keita’s ever-evolving music.

Slightly more disquieting, however, was the use of pre-recorded backing vocals. It is a sign, perhaps, of austere times that Keita – who famously contrasts his own voice with those of a number of female backing singers – played in Glasgow with just one supporting vocalist. The other voices were emanating from the computers.

Renowned for his dance music he may be, but Keita is possibly even better known as a balladeer. In Glasgow, he opted for a performance of the beautiful Yamore, from the acclaimed 2002 album Moffou. It is in songs such as this, when the emotive calm of the music makes way for the spine-tingling heights that seem to be reserved for Keita alone, that you realise the Malian is more deserving of his fame than a dozen of Europe’s ageing rock stars.

This review was originally published in the Daily Telegraph on February 4, 2013

© Mark Brown

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