Salif Keita – interview

When the opportunity came up to interview Salif Keita Louder Than War jumped at it. Now in his sixties, Salif is considered the “Golden Voice of Africa” and has just released his latest album, which includes collaborations ranging from Esperanza Spalding to Roots Manuva. While Salif was on his European tour Ged Hawes managed to get some time to speak to him (through a translator) for us…

A descendant of the Mali Empire’s founder (Sundiata Kieta) Salif Keita was immediately cast out from the family and ostracised from society. His ‘crime’? Being born an albino – a sign of bad luck in the Mandinka culture.

Salif credits music as the force that “made me want to keep living.” I asked him if he still remembers when he first felt that. “Yes, I remember that. There was no hope to carry on. I was always down. There was nothing for me. Nothing. Music made me want to carry on.”

The recent trouble in Mali was well publicised. At the time that I was speaking with Salif the French had not yet regained control of the country. Jihadist rebels had implemented Sharia Law in two thirds of the country outlawing music and entertainment.

I asked Salif about the impact on the next generation of Malian musicians. Turns out Salif has concerns for musicians globally regardless of Sharia Law!

“Yes. It will be very difficult for them. The reason behind that is that right now the music industry is dying. It’s dying because of technology, the new technology like downloading free music, ringtones and illegally using the music. You can’t get money and you can’t get anything from the stuff that you create. So often you are wasting your time if you are trying to make music for your living.

“As the music business is dying, you know, it’s just a waste of time. But, perhaps if you are a rich person and you just want to make music as a hobby. But to be in music right now – there’s no hope, nothing, with new technology killing music.”

That certainly wasn’t the answer I expected. That’s a problem globally but it’s interesting that technology is seen as having the same impact as Sharia Law.


Since 2001 Mali has been hosting The Festival in The Desert – a showcase of Malian musicians (although Bono and Robert Plant have popped up before too). This year’s festival has been cancelled. In a show of solidarity Glastonbury have Rokia Troare opening the Pyramid stage every day.

I was under the impression that Salif had played Glastonbury but either he’s forgotten or The Guardian are wrong. Either way, when I asked if he’d come to play at Glastonbury again if asked I think the question got lost in translation…

He asks, “What is Glastonbury?” and I tell him it’s a big music festival in the UK, possibly the biggest.

Salif says, “Definitely would not play. Why would I not play? Because I cannot see any benefit of why the Festival of The Desert would be transferred from Mali to come to the UK.

“If it was something like moving it to the south of Mali or somewhere like Paris because when the war started it was only the French troops who came to help and we didn’t see any help from the UK government to fight for Mali.

“I would not be happy and would not be proud to play in this situation – it’s not normal for me. I want to keep all the tradition in the same place.”

So, sorry Michael & Emily but if you are planning on asking him I’d just clarify you aren’t the new Festival In The Desert. I asked if he felt there’s a role for music at times of war and conflict? The translator told me this was a good question so I hoped this time he’d translate what I actually said!

“Yes of course. Music has it’s own place, it’s own space to call for peace or to make a peace. Also in the old time when it was a Kingdom, the King used to listen to music to call for peace.

“For me music has always it’s own impact in terms of peace. It’s very important to keep music to call for peace. In the 17th century the king would use the music to call for peace.”

At this point, without any prompting or further questions we seem to get back to the Festival of The Desert being moved to the UK….

“If the staff of the desert festival move to another region of Mali then people will say ‘the music is playing a big role in peace – to call for peace’ but to transfer the Festival Of The Desert to the UK is something that will make people think that Mali is on fire now – because of war, it’s really on fire! But if it happened in Mali – people can say even if there is a war there then there is music and we can all call for peace.”

I think a misunderstood question about whether Salif would play at Glastonbury this year has riled him slightly, but time is short (and made shorter once translation has taken place) so I press on.

Produced by Philip Cohen Solal of Paris based group Gotan Project, Salif’s new album, ‘Tale’, features a few Western musicians. When he started working with Philip he told him that he wanted this record “to dance.” I think he’s certainly achieved this.

The power and emotion in Salif Keita’s voice is incredible and the backdrop of traditional African sounds fuses effortlessly with anything from the jazz influence of Grammy award winner Esperanza Spalding to the funk from Roots Manuva. On “Natty” he’s joined by his youngest daughter Natty Keita.

I asked if we should be looking out for the next star in the Keita family (another daughter Nantenin is a Paralympic 200m Silver medallist). He laughs and tells me, “Yes of course she is singing on this track but I will never encourage my daughter to pursue a music career because there is no future in it.

“I’ve already explained why there is nothing for the music industry.”

And on that, rather sobering note, our time was up.

Salif Keita has an amazing back-story and is living proof of overcoming obstacles to do what you love.

If you haven’t listened to anything by Salif I’d suggest you do so for his voice alone. His new album brings new collaborations and his desire to try new things is ever present. I think you get the real Salif Keita when the distractions are gone though – the raw power and emotion of his voice.

Tale was released in February 2013 and he’s currently touring Europe.

Interview by Ged Hawes. You can read more from Ged on LTW here.

Previous articleThe Best of Australia’s 1980s Underground: a list by Sean Hocking
Next articleÓlafur Arnalds: For Now I Am Winter – album review


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here