The Prince


In 1968, in the Malian capital of Bamako, a land of kingdoms, a 19-year-old boy descended from Malian princes defied the conventions of his noble ancestry to become a singer. This begins like a fairy tale, and like most princes in fairy tales, he received at birth both gifts and curses: an incomparable voice, musical talent, bad eyesight, and the gene that made him an albino.

In Malian culture, albinos are cursed because they are believed to carry evil powers and Salif Keita was ostracized and became an outcast. Isolated and lovelorn, the unhappy prince could have become a bandit. But art is alchemy; it possesses the power to transform suffering into light, and Keita was able to free himself from the pain in his life through cathartic song. That a man with royal blood would choose to work as a musician caused a storm of protest in the Mali of the 1960’s, but Keita, undeterred, kept singing in the Bamako streets.

 Bamako is a hot, dusty city that sprawls along both banks of the Niger River in southern Mali. Musicians from Mali often say “All we have here is a bit of gold, the Niger river and our music. The Sahara is advancing all the time, so soon, all we will have left is our culture.” Manding griots, who sang to evoke the grand struggles and tragedies of history, and open-air performances by itinerant musicians are part of a musical tradition that goes back at least six centuries. When Salif Keita formed a trio with his brothers, they followed that tradition and naturally, played on the streets and the nightclubs of Bamako. This is how the career of one of Africa’s greatest singers began. He sang with the group Les Ambassadeurs creating popular fusion-dance music until the 1980’s. Then he set out on his solo career and moved to Paris in 1984. While living there, he created new songs, blending together the traditional griot music of his Malian childhood with a myriad styles from the diaspora ( West African influences from Guinea, the Ivory Coast, and Senegal, along with musical undercurrents from Cuba, Spain, and Portugal). With these songs, Keita changed the public’s perception about African music: these were no longer tunes one would mindlessly dance to; this music was important enough to listen to.
His artistic ingenuity, charismatic presence, and magnificent voice make Salif Keita one of the most celebrated African singers today. He holds a unique place in the heart of music lovers. As an official “Minister for Music and Culture”, he relentlessly crosses the globe, spreading his hypnotic brand of world-fusion music.

Prospect Park, Sunday night: the Salif Keita Concert:

Salif Keita-vocals, Souleymane Doumbia-percussion, Harouna Samake-kamale n’goni, Mamadou Kone-calebasse, Djely Kouyate-guitar, Ousmane Kouyate-guitar, Marie-Line Marolany-vocals and dance, Maria Marolany-vocals and dance, Mike Celini-bass, Ghislain Biwandu, drums

Keita sings with passion yet his undeniable gentleness shines through. He often keeps his eyes shut while singing and after each song, he thanks the audience in a soft voice. Every musician in his ensemble is exceptional and the soundscape, created by the diversity of instruments used (African percussions, calabashes, a talking drum, a kora, bass, electric guitar and Keita’s own acoustic guitar which he uses to accompany certain songs), is riveting and original,

Marie-Line and Maria Marolany’s dancing enthralled the audience whileKeita’s full-throated, heart-breaking gut wail, brought the house down!

Sharing the wondrous joy of music!
The concert poster said “Rain or Shine”. It rained.
And rained.
And rained some more!

It seemed it would never stop.
But rain seemed a small price to pay to see Salif Keita.
Eventually, the skies cleared.
Then, the celebratory mood exploded!
Lisbeth, Denise and Michele
Following the dancers’ moves. (Trying to.)
Harold and Denise
With Sansan
With Nicole
Right before the rain, the summer night was sultry, then the clouds changed color and from the sky, drops first, then a gush of water; people grab umbrellas, others look for scarves and newspapers; Buyu has wrapped a plastic bag like a turban around his head; some scramble to find shelter under leafy trees, others remain unfazed through the deluge: a woman next to me says it’s a blessing this rain, think of how many places it hasn’t rained and the earth suffers; Sansan is getting soaked, just his beret to protect him yet he remains serene, his right hand cupped to capture rainwater. Didi reminisces about playing naked in the rain when he was a child, the pleasure of water on his bare skin, so free; rain soaks my blouse, my hair, puddles of water form on the chair; my skirt is drenched, my thighs are wet, but we all stay there, waiting for Salif Keita to come onstage; And as the rain stops, he saunters in, dressed in royal blue and gold, and his voice takes flight and takes me along, and i’m on its wings, and i’m a child of the earth and i’m an angel; and the voice explodes, vibrant and mournful, and i’m filled with longing and so many other emotions like multicolored ribbons unraveling, joy and sadness, i’m bereft and free, and the music comes from the sky, from all around me, i am surrounded by music and by all these people in the dark green of the park who sway, abandonning themselves to the rhythm; Salif sings in Bambara and we don’t know what the words mean but we repeat the sounds we hear, it’s an irresistible feeling and we all lose ourselves in the music; Salif Keita sings and suddenly the world is a wonder; and Keita jumps and we jump and Keita wails and we wail, and there are traditional howls coming from women in the audience, and the dancers are beautiful; one has a green wrap and she flays her arms around wildly and her hips gyrate up and down and around, and whatever is happening onstage seems to be replicated in the audience; Didi is mesmerized by the dancer in yellow, her headwrap has fallen and her hair is loosened and she is at once graceful and sensual, long-limbed like some gazelle, biological curiosity he calls it, this hypnotic trance he gets into when he watches beauty; there must be thousands of people in the park and we smell sweat and beer and spicy food and corn chips and the wet fur of Stephanie’s dog, she smuggled her in, and we are high on music and we chant Salif, Salif ; and each of his musicians is a star: the kora player, and the bass player, and the percussionist and the dancers who sing and Keita has a sound that comes from below his guts, like it’s coming from inside his balls, it’s too deep and mournful and real and it’s the last song and with the generosity of a prince, Keita shares his light and invites people from the audience to come on stage , there is an amazing musician, long blond hair, who jumps up and plays the electric guitar and others dance and there is no doubt at all that Salif is a prince. The Prince. And when the show ends, after he has said his last thank you’s, in such a low , gentle tone, we’re walking through the park, past that sweet smelling tree, so much like perfume, tiny white flowers on the tree, i don’t know it’s name, but i know we were blessed continuously tonight.

Friends, music, laughter: all the elements of a blessed evening!


In December 2004, Salif Keita was named United Nations Ambassador for Music and Sports and dedicated himself to causes like Malaria, AIDS and the plight of Albinos in Mali and around the world. With his youngest daughter, Natenin born albino in 2005 and with the loss of his albino sister from skin cancer a decade prior, Mr. Keita founded The Salif Keita Global Foundation to raise money for free healthcare and educational services for Albinos in Africa and around the world. The Foundation is building a hospital and school in Mali and will also participate in environmentally-friendly projects, as well as programs to eradicate poverty, Malaria, AIDS and unemployment.
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