Salif Keita, Royal Festival Hall | New music reviews, news & interviews
Salif Keita, Royal Festival Hall
The great Malian singer just misses the target despite having a great new album out
The only time the great Malian singer spoke at any length to last night’s audience was when he said, “I don’t know my birthday. I don’t know the day or the year. So any day can be my birthday. So can you please stand up and dance for my birthday.” So either Wikipedia is wrong about it being 25 August 1949, or Keita has a strange sense of humour. Anyway, his presumably oft-repeated line gets a warm chuckle of appreciation and a third of the audience dutifully get to their feet.
In other respects too this was an oddly dissatisfying gig. Keita’s new album Talé is a muscular pop/funk workout which pays tribute to African-American 1970s music without ever resorting to pastiche. And so in theory there was no problem with it taking up nearly half the band’s set. But after 45 minutes of relentless Afro-funk, one yearned for the Keita of old who would do a few acoustic songs mid-set. However, it needs to be said that perhaps if the meat and potatoes of the band’s sound hadn’t been generated by triggering samples, this wouldn’t have been as much of an issue.
Keita still has a voice that sounds like it could cut through sheet metal
It was particularly disheartening to hear one song begin with an aggressive biting guitar lick, only to then notice that the guitarist wasn’t playing the lick, the keyboard player was. And in fact the guitarist seemed rather at a loose end while his job was being done by a sampler. When eventually we got to hear the ngoni player pluck out a metallic flurry of notes at the beginning of “Yala” from Keita’s classic 2005 album M’Bemba, it simply highlighted how much his playing had been drowned in a swamp of synth during the rest of the set. And where was the bottom-end? With no bass player present it was another duty for the poor old keyboard player, and all he could muster was a distant low rumble with little definition.
Yes, there was some wonderful live interaction between calabash, congas and ngoni, backing vocalist Gladys Gambie was never less than diverting (particularly during her authoritative delivery of Roots Manuva’s rap on “C’est Bon, C’est Bon”), and Keita’s tremulous yet immensely powerful tenor voice sounded as strong as ever, despite the fact the man is now (we can feel fairly sure) in his mid-sixties. It’s still a voice that sounds like it could cut through sheet metal.
My final gripe relates to the light show. Six spotlights were mounted on the stage behind the band. Occasionally they were used to stunning effect, such as when they were tilted down at the stage, glowing gold like setting suns. But more often than not they were strobing incessantly, or intermittently shining directly at the audience. I simply got in the habit of judging the moment the searchlight would hit me so I could close my eyes. Keita really didn’t need to dazzle us with light when he can dazzle us with music.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 7,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
more New music
This kid-friendly festival has an audience as eclectic as the line up
Booker T Jones' set of Sixties hits wows the crowd - but is Damon Albarn's new solo material a touch too subtle to headline?
Fink's latest is a mixed bag of the inspired and aerated
Thompson goes solo for a deft career retrospective
Belated recognition for a unique singer-songwriter
More top-drawer nostalgia from the prolific Scotsman
Rising London electronic duo don't quite match their hype
Elly Jackson has matured musically in her absence: but is that for the best?
Vivid and wide-ranging tribute to New Orleans musical traditions
An album that aches with a spiritual yearning by this singular artist
A ground-breaking lost classic resurfaces
Taste-making DJ and broadcaster on jazz, how to stay relevant, and John Peel's legacy