Opiyo Oloya Interviews Salif Keita
Tuesday, April 23 1996 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I met with Salif Keita at the hotel's Cafe. He already had two interviews with TV reporters. When he walked over to where I was sitting, I could see he was in a very jovial mood, talkative and generous. He asked me if I would like to drink some coffee. I told him I did not drink coffee because it turns me into an insomniac. He laughed and we chatted for about ten minutes. During that time, I decided that Salif Keita spoke English well enough to dispense with the services of Philippe, his manager/interpreter. I told him so and turned on the microphone...

OO : Let us start by talking about your new album "Folon". There is a striking difference between the new album and AMEN, your last album. In Amen, your voice was pure fire. But in Folon, Salif is mellow. Are you changing direction, the way you do music?

SK : Aah. But Folon is not Amen. Folon is different (laughs loudly)...Ahh that's life in the world. Sometimes you are high, you cry, you speak louder. But other times, you speak from the heart.

OO : You are now a success all around the world. More and more people in Europe and North America are listening to your music. What do you think is pulling people to this music. After all, not everybody understands the language of Malinke.

SK : Could you repeat the question?

OO : Your music is slowly gaining attention around the world. I have met some of your fans from the former Yugoslavia. They say, Salif is a great singer. What is it in your music that makes someone from Yugoslavia listen to it?

SK :You know, if you wanna call everybody, one thing you have to do is to call them with music. To tell you the truth, music is everybody's name (laughs). You understand what I mean.

OO : Yes I understand.

SK : With music, you don't have to say, Hey Philippe, Suzanne or Pierre. No, music is the name for everybody. If it comes from your heart, people will love it because everyone has a heart too. It's from one heart to another heart. OO: But your success puts you in a different league from other African musicians. True, they are making music, but not all of them are being heard.

SK : I do music because I am spiritual. I also do music with my heart. You know, through my songs I want to help my audience. If it makes them feel spiritual, then I have succeeded. I think it has to be that way.

OO : You know, the other day I was talking with some fans of Salif Keita. Some of them were angry with you. They said you spend too much time working on projects that have nothing to do with your music. They said you should spend more time making new music.

SK : They want more disc? Ohh I think that doesn't work. If you do music, you do it positively. You have to have something positive to say to your listeners. It is not easy to find something positive to say every day. If you wanna talk about nothing in your music, sure you can do music everyday (laughs)

OO : That's true. That's true

SK : I am sorry, but that's the truth.

OO : I agree entirely

SK : You know...

OO : You started almost thirty years ago with the Rail Band of Bamako before moving on to Les Ambassadeurs du Motel. How has your music changed? How do you feel you have changed as a person?

SK : You know the life of a musician is like an egg. You start from egg and grow into the chicken (laughs very heartily). You understand what I mean. don't you?

OO : There is some change SK: A lot of change because you meet people. You listen to people. You meet culture. You meet a lot musicians and you listen to a lot of musicians who do all kinds of music. So it is only normal that you will change, you grow up and carry on until you die. Until the day you die, you are growing up and changing.

OO : Let's talk about that for a moment. Let's talk about dying. You recently lost your father. What is your view on that? How do feel? Do you see death as something big and terrible or do you see it as a spiritual journey?

SK : You know, when you have both your mother and father, you are still young. But when you lose one of them, you see you are not young any more. You are on your own. You have to take responsibility. That's important. My father did many positive things for me. And he was my friend. We talked about everything. He helped me with my life. When he died, what could I do? It was horrible for me.

OO : Difficult

SK : It was very difficult for me to accept his death. But the one thing I feel now is the responsibility toward my family. When it comes to my family, I have my work cut out for me.

OO : Your father was a great man

SK : Yes, he was.

OO : He was blessed with a son, you. But you were different, you are an albino. Your father stuck by you. He stayed with you even though you were different from other children.

SK : My father was confused in the beginning when I was still a baby. He did not know what to do with an albino. But afterwards, he became my friend. He was truly a great friend who helped me a lot in my life.

OO : I see more and more people buying African music. This, by the way, is a great trend. But how much financial benefits do the artists themselves get from all these sales?

SK : I think in the West, Europe and America, it is better. If your music sells, you get money. If you sign with a record company with a good reputation like Polygram, Sony or Shanachie, you get money. But it is different in Africa where there is too much revenue is lost to piracy. It is tough and you can music all your life and still die with nothing. Nobody can do anything about it. The governments are not interested in stopping these illegal trades of pirated music.

OO : Are you working to help change that in any way?

SK : What can I do? Who can do anything? Who? Only the governments, but they don't care.

OO : They are not interested.

SK: No, because the money does not go into their pockets

OO: Ahh. You have been an outspoken critic of your government, the government of Mali. When you go back to Mali, they are not happy to see you there.

SK: No, never. The people of Mali are happy to see me and I love them. But not the government.

OO: Why not? The government should be happy to see you. They should say, "Here is our son who made it big." They should be happy.

SK: No, no. Not my government. They are jealous. They try to destroy me every chance they get.

OO: But they cannot destroy you, can they?

SK: I hope so. After all, I am living for everybody, not for my country alone. I am living for Africa. I live for the African people.

OO: So, you have become a world citizen at home in South Africa, Uganda or in Mozambique.

SK: Yes, I come from everywhere (laughs)

OO : Let's go back to "Folon", your last album. Who is the girl on the cover of the album?

SK : That's my niece. She lives with me now in Paris. She looks like me when I was young. That's why I put her picture on the cover. The reason being that "Folon" means the past, it is about the past.

OO: Why did you choose to talk about the past this time?

SK: I chose to talk about the past because life was a positive experience then. But we accept the present too because we have to move forward.

OO: I still remember a scene from the video of your life story where you return to your birth place and asks the elders if you dance in the highly secretive hunter's society. They accepted your request and made you an honorary member. This was going back to the past. How did you feel about that?

SK:It is a great society and it was truly a great honour for me to dance with them. Moreover, that society is still intact. If you want to see the African people, you have to walk the traditional way. You see Africa, but what is it? It's the people. That's why I met the hunter's society and they are good people. They don't care about money. Everything come from their hearts.

OO: But in Mali today, change is taking place rapidly. The society that was once great is slowly being erased.

SK: Ahh can you repeat the question?

OO: In the old African society people never cared about money, a big house or car. When someone came to your house, you fed them even before learning their names. That society is slowly changing. How can we stop this rapid change?

SK: You can stop that. You can't stop because people are now moving with money. It is horrible to see business eating everything. And with business, nothing happens without money changing hands. It is truly horrible. It is bad, very bad.

OO: Tell me how you relate to fellow African artists in France. There is a big African community there.

SK: The African community in France is a big one. But life there is dictated by business. Once in a while we do something for the common good like "Tam Tam pour Ethiopie". But other than that we never meet together for the common good. Everything else is strictly business. And to me, that's a big problem. You see, we signed with different record companies and they in turn prefer to keep everything strictly business. And this does not work with helping people.

OO: You have collaborated with Manu Dibango in the past.

SK: Yes, Manu Dibango is our elder. We call him the Elder.

OO: Where does Salif Keita go from here? You, after all fought hard to get where you are now. What will you doing ten years from now?

SK: Ten years from now? I don't understand your question. Could you repeat, please?

OO: (in French) What direction will you take in your career ten years from now?

SK: The best way will be to carry on as an artist helping people through music and through other projects. I will continue to enjoy the road shows, making movie soundtracks. I want to stay within the artists community.

OO: When I met you in Lobby last night you mentioned that you will be collaborating with Malian director, Cissokho. Tell me a little bit about that if you don't mind.

SK: Hm.. This man is great. I will support him till I die.

OO: Is he that great?

SK: He is great. I love this man because he is a positive guy for Africa. Not just for Mali, but for everybody. So if he calls me, I drop whatever I am doing and come running.

OO: Right away

SK: Yeah.. yeah

OO: Oh boy

SK: Yes, he is a big man.

OO: He, Cissokho, has a lot of stories to tell. Do you identify with him because you are also a storyteller?

SK: Yes, we work the same way.

OO: Yeah

SK: Yeah, yeah, he is a big personality. He has many stories to tell. That is good for Africa.

OO: Well, this has been really wonderful. You know, I would like to thank you for giving me the chance to talk to you this afternoon.

SK: Thank you too. And I hope that one day your country (Uganda) will be peaceful.

OO: This is what we hope (laugh)

SK: Yes, for all of Africa.

OO: Thank you... (Salif adjusts his black cap, speaks for a moment with his manager Philippe and then he is gone for another interview.)

Opiyo Oloya lives in Toronto, writes the African music column AfroDisc and hosts the radio program Karibuni.

See also: Africa

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Photo by Laurie Lewis from the Mango album "Amen"