In its eclectic mix of Mali `griot', Paris jazz, blues, folk and occasional symphonic elements Salif Keita's music has long defied pigeon-holing as simply `West African'. The uniquely infectious concoction typically mixes traditional Mali instrumentation and rhythms with the guitars, keyboards and brass of western jazz and pop, and has become the internationally recognised `sound of Mali'. At age 63, Salif Keita is at the top of his game and deservedly feels confident enough to branch out.
Like Moffou, M'Bemba and La Difference, Keita's 20th album release `Tale' was recorded at Moffou Studio in Bamako, this time produced by Philippe Cohen-Solal. This 2013 collection is a departure from Keita's recent work in that the songs are predominately joyous, get-up-and-dance numbers characteristic of his stage performances. Conspicuously absent are the more introspective, soulful pieces found on previous albums.
As with the later-in-life work of Carlos Santana or (the late, great) John Lee Hooker, `Tale' features celebrity-guest appearances to add interesting flavours to the mix. Bobby McFerrin performs a vocal duo in `Simby', McFerrin's baritone complementing Keita's tenor over insistent percussion and synthesizer, the result more McFerrin in character than Keita. Young American jazz impresario Esperanza Spalding sings and plays bass on the closing track `Cherie S'en Va', and South London hip-hopper Roots Manuva helps drive along the delightfully danceable `C'est bon, C'est bon'. Latin American rhythms are in evidence on many numbers. A minor delight is `Natty', with lyrics sung in simple French ("Je t'aime Maman, Je t'aime Papa") by Salif's youngest daughter in a top-20-style pop song about how cool her father is! `Tassi' is a really great song with a fine funky bass line and soulful vocal, destined to be a concert favourite.
Due to its more populist style `Tale' may disappoint some of Keita's hard-core traditionalist fan base. Conversely the album's easy accessibility and danceable rhythmic music - which capture the spirit of Salif's live-on-stage performances - may win him a new audience.
The album's artwork, though distinctive in colour and theme is unremarkable and hardly original (inside the sleeve is a weird photo of Salif superimposed on a second partly obscuring his face which looks - well, weird). But the music, whilst remaining faithful to the soul of Salif Keita, has an immediacy likely to resonate beyond dyed-in-the-wool `ethnic' and `world music' devotees. Not bad for a 63-year old who after a lifetime of struggle has always followed his own star, and continues to march - and dance - to his own drum.