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Salif Keita Celebrates Diversity and Preaches Tolerance on La Différence

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by Marc Gabriel Amigone

"I'm a black man, my skin is white and I like it, it's my difference. I'm a white man, my blood is black, I love that, it's the difference that's beautiful." Those are the words of Salif Keita, taken from La Différence, the title track off his new album out June, 8 2010 on Emarcy Records. Known the world over as "The Golden Voice of Africa", Salif Keita is an icon of the international music industry, famous for his incredible voice and even more so for his incredible story.

Salif Keita was born August 25, 1949 in Djoliba, Mali, an albino. His skin is a deep white in a land of scorching sun. In his native Mali, as in many cultures in Africa, albinos are believed to be a curse. Keita was disowned by his father and ostracized by the rest of society. His mother had to hide him from murderous gangs out to kill him for his body parts to be sold on the black market and used in spiritual practices.

It was his status as an outcast that ultimately led him to become a musician. After being denied admission to a teacher's college due to poor eyesight at the age of 18, he relocated to Bamako (Mali's capital) to sing on street corners and in local bars. This was no small feat considering that he shared the same last name, and royal lineage, as the great warrior-emperor Sunjata Keita, founder of the Mande Empire that stretched across West Africa beginning in the 13th century whose cultural practices and customs are still in place today.

Keita commented on how his exclusion from society led him to music, "I would've done something totally different [If I wasn't an albino]. For me it was a way to go against my lineage. It actually helped other people, noble people, to stand up and take up music as well. It could've been a double-exclusion, but I still did it."

In Mande culture, musicianship is reserved for a separate caste of society called Jeli (more commonly known by the French word Griot). Traditionally, Jeli status is passed down from generation to generation. The customs and methods of singing, playing instruments, and recanting historical anecdotes are handed down hereditarily. Jelis are patronized and commissioned by other segments of society, especially the noble elite. Keita went against centuries of tradition by emulating the Jeli practices with which he was intimately familiar due to being on the receiving end of their praises.

Keita's musical career began to take shape during his time in Bamako in the 1970's. He was recruited into the burgeoning Rail Band de Bamako, the group charged with contributing to the new national identity of Mali by updating traditional songs with modern instruments (they got their name from their residency at the restaurant attached to the train station in Bamako). The newly independent Republic of Guinea, Mali's neighbor to the south, had already begun to forge their cultural identity through the sounds of voices and electric guitars under the patronage of President Sékou Touré. Due to being landlocked and more insulated culturally, Mali lagged behind neighboring Senegal and Guinea in their formation of national cultures. With the help of Keita's soaring voice and The Rail Band's swinging grooves that changed in a big way.

Keita grew to be so immensely popular that when he left The Rail Band in 1973 to join Les Ambassadeurs, a rival dance band in Bamako, it was an incident of national significance (Mory Kanté, who went on to forge a hugely successful solo career, replaced Keita, and The Rail Band continued to thrive). Les Ambassadeurs set out to accomplish the same goal as The Rail Band: to merge the traditional sounds of Mande Culture with the modern sensibilities of urban Africa. Keita, and Les Ambassadeurs, relocated to Abidjan, Ivory Coast in 1978 amid civil unrest and the arrest of their manager. It was in Abidjan that they recorded their most famous hit, Mandjou, a praise song to Guinean President Sékou Touré.

In the early 1980's, Keita began to perform on his own in Europe and eventually relocated to Paris to pursue a solo career. He continued to merge traditional African instruments and sounds with contemporary ones by collaborating with musicians from all corners of the globe and performing throughout Europe and North America. He went on to pioneer the "World Music" genre, a label Keita is quick to point out he did not choose while admitting it's contributed greatly to the success of his career, "Well in fact it's a label the music industry has created. It's not 'World Music,' it's African music. But the positive part is that it has helped African music to be known all over the world."

Keita is using his platform as an international music icon to draw attention to issues that matter most to him. He feels he has a responsibility to use his platform to speak out, "Once you are known and you have an audience, it becomes your duty to really speak out and be a spokesperson for other people who don't have that opportunity. It is a duty."

"The other concerns and issues that are occurring in Africa right now are desertification and degradation of nature," In addition to discrimination against albinos, Keita condemns degradation of the natural environment on his new album, "For instance, a lot of people earn their living by logging to the point where no forests are left on the continent. Pollution is also a big issue. Rivers are drying up. All these environmental issues are what I'd like to talk about."

Keita cannot hide the most prominent cause for which he stands. His white skin makes a statement by itself. His foundation, Salif Keita Pour les Albinos, provides care, assistance, and protection from the sun to albinos in addition to raising awareness about the issue. The lack of a functioning educational system in Mali, where the population is more than three-quarters illiterate, helps to explain the continued existence of inhumane beliefs and discriminatory practices against albinos.

"I feel that now is the time to stop atrocities and human sacrifices that are committed against albinos all over Africa. All over Africa, in Burundi, Tanzania, many regions of Africa, albino people are killed, sacrificed, their body parts are sold on the black market. It's really terrible, but now is the time to stop."

Marc Gabriel Amigone is founder of The Afrobeat Blog: