Salif Keita’s life has been spent defying expectation – sometimes abrasively, other times creatively. Being albino and deciding on a career in music when you are part of the Malian royal lineage will tend to harbour you with a rebellious reputation (even if your skin pigmentation is out of your hands). Over the past 45 years, however, Keita has also been ruffling feathers in the world of African music for actual, musical reasons rather than issues of class, and his latest effort Talé sees him continue to wander down an individual path, even if there are clear signs of wear and tear on him at this advanced stage in his career.
His voice, though? Peerless. Opener ‘Da’ is muted with a sparse arrangement of wriggling guitars and light strings designed to accentuate the heights Keita can reach vocally, and it is that voice that is so urgently needed to hold onto the listener’s attention in Talé‘s more lacking stretches. The much-touted collaboration with Roots Manuva, ‘C’est Bon, C’est Bon’, is once such disappointment, unfortunately. Rodney’s contribution is limited to a shout of “young people of the world / Français to UK / JA to Mali” and some nonsensical interjections, but his message, however vague, speaks to Keita’s sense of globalism. The hybrid of Keita’s intricate rhythms and Roots’ dub horn-section is a well-meaning realisation of such multiculturalism, even if the collaboration is far more exciting on paper than in practice.
Producer Phillipe Cohen Solal brings a dance-inflected edge to proceedings, and ‘C’est bon’ is reflective of Talé in that it aims for the sweet spot between western and African music, but ‘A demain’, and ‘Simby’ are more accurate, finding a good balance between tradition and progression. ‘A demain’ is built on a persuasive rhythm as well as electronic flecks and more acoustic sounds. It all comes to a strong but not overpowering climax, while Simby is largely a capella, a coalition of clicks and vocal tics eschewing Talé‘s larger sonic template.
The album reaches its nadir with the sickly sweet ‘Natty’ and its simple refrain, sung by a little girl, that can be cynically dismissed by French and non-French speakers alike. Four and a half minutes of “Je t’aime, ami / Je t’aime, Mama / Je t’aime, Papa” is not exactly groundbreaking, and ‘Natty’ walks the unenviable line between boring and saccharine as a result. From there, Talé becomes increasingly quiet, unfocused and lackadaisical (‘Talé’, ‘Tassi’), but closer ‘Cherie s’en va’ seemingly turns this on its head, finding its power in near silence and leaving Keita and Esperanza Spalding to soulfully ruminate amid the ruins of music – ambient electronics, faint percussion and a mournful. If nothing else, Talé proves Keita’s greatest strength remains his voice, and nothing can undermine that.