Salif Keita, Barbican, London – review

Forget, for a moment, all that business about the Golden Voice of Mali, or indeed, depending on who you ask, the Golden Voice of Africa itself. Salif Keita is nothing if not a master semiotician – as an albino in a culture that has a superstitious dread of the condition, perhaps he needed to be – and part of the joy of watching him perform is marvelling at his signalling of status: turning up in civvies when his band are in full wax-cloth robes; waving his hand to cue or silence the musicians; blowing kisses to the audience in acknowledgment of applause; raising a fist high above his head.

All that was on view at the Barbican. But, perhaps to put the point beyond doubt, he announced: “This is my home. I am a king. They are my griots” – the hereditary musicians, then as now Diabatés and Kouyatés, who sang the praises of the emperors, the Keitas.

This was billed as an acoustic tour, something Keita has promised for years and delivered only once, in the form of the briefest set on a joint tour sandwiched between Didier Awadi and Tony Allen. But those 20 minutes, acoustic guitarists meshing patterns while Keita’s commanding tenor rode their hypnotic groove, held out a tantalising promise.

The presence of ngoni and kora in this band boded well. But the music was heavy on percussion – a dulled thump of tea-chest – and electric guitar, Ousmane Kouyaté never far from unleashing a scratchy solo. Mamadou Diabaté, a celebrated and dextrous kora player in his own right, played dancing, tumultuous solos that were lost in the mix, and used a keyboard to trigger shiny pre-set keyboard loops.

The highlight was “Mandjou”, an old favourite from Keita’s days with Les Ambassadeurs. Here it began with an opiate rush of synth and chimes and bones and shakers that sounded like a tribute to Ibrahim Sylla (the veteran Paris-based producer whose lacquered sheen on Soro first brought Keita to western ears) and then settled into a form of Manding space rock. When Keita’s voice soared back in, it was as thrilling as anything he has ever sung.

Elsewhere, “M’Bemba” was rapturously received from the opening notes, its false climax prompting the applause less of a political rally than of a revival meeting. And “Yamore” was moving even without Cesaria Evora’s duet part. This was a band performance with Keita on top form, and no one would complain about that; for that actual acoustic tour, we are still waiting.

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