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.
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