The general critical reaction to Salif Keita’s new album might lead the casual reader to suspect that he had embarked on a military coup, or encouraged half his country to secede. In fact, all he has done is to infuse his music – with the collaboration of Philippe Cohen Solal of Gotan Project – with some tropes from 1970s club dance music. Not, perhaps, such an outrage from someone who spent his 1970s playing dance music in clubs, even if those were in Mali rather than Manhattan.
Keita does not daunt easily, and this, his only concert in England, drew heavily on Talé, playing the new album almost in its entirety. Perhaps in an oblique commentary on events in his home country, he had forsworn his usual half-Napoleonic, half-Junta dress for what looked like a white yoga outfit topped by a trilby. When he entered to applause, he knelt on the stage and flung a kiss of appreciation to the audience. The band opened up “Mandjou”, and he sang, first with a warm caress, and then the full-throated tenor that earned him the sobriquet of “the golden voice of Mali”.
The disco influences of the album nudged their way into the staging: dry ice billowed and strobe lights flickered and stabbed like desert lightning. They were mirrored in the punctuation of sampled kitschy string orchestra flicks on “Da”, the fizzy rhythms that recalled a Bamako Blondie and the syncopated interplay between calabash and percussion. On “A Demain” the synthesiser buzzes had the antique tang of burning rubber and solder. Harouna Samake played the kamel n’goni behind his back and upside down, channelling Hendrix.
“I don’t know my birthday. I don’t know the day or the month,” cajoled Keita shamelessly. “So any day can be my birthday. Can you stand up to dance for my birthday?” The audience stood to sing to him, and stayed to dance to “La Différence”. Keita raised a hand in acknowledgment to the galleries and balconies and boxes. “Chacun à son goût”, sang Gladys Gambie, as if taunting puritanical critics.
Any trace of fragility was beaten out of the new songs, generally for the good. The opening rap on “C’est Bon C’est Bon”, on record delivered narcoleptically by Roots Manuva, drew some B-girl sass from Gambie; she also rescued the saccharine child’s vocal line from “Natty”. But “Samfi”, on the album a dubby, echoing sonic excursion built around a sample from the B-52s, here became a sonic bombardment; the stage was plunged into darkness with spotlight beams jabbing from floor to ceiling and back like laser fire from an interplanetary invasion.
The encores started with a juggernaut Afrobeat rumble, Keita’s vocals tumbling out over a deceptively ambling backing, and then stepped up a gear. Keita pulled an enthusiastic dancer from the front row up with him, briefly to upstage Gambie, and then beckoned to whole platoons of the audience (grinning as if they could not believe their luck), finally bringing democracy to at least the dance floor.