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Fusion the key for Mali battler
Fusion the key for Mali battler

Lauded as the "golden voice of Africa", Malian singer Salif Keita has developed a unique style in which rock, jazz and funk combine with the West African griot music of his childhood.

His glorious, soaring style has made him one of the greatest singers, not only of African music but the entire global music scene. However, his early life growing up in the village of Djoliba was full of hardship.

Born an albino, considered a sign of bad luck, to a noble family, he was forced to leave his family home and live like an outcast in the Malian capital Bamako where he worked as a street musician. In 1969 he joined the government-sponsored ensemble, the Rail Band, and four years later Les Ambassadeurs.

By 1984 he had relocated to Paris in order to reach a wider audience. Today he is based in the French capital and lives in Mali for part of the year, where he owns a recording studio and radio station.

"I had to fight to make a go of things in Africa because in those days music was considered to be the work of delinquents," Keita explains via an interpreter. "When I moved to Paris my music was considered to be real work, a real business."

In 1987, he released the groundbreaking album Soro, that mixed Western keyboards with traditional African instruments and singing. "That was my visiting card," he says. "I've always wanted to try new things and not stay in one cliche. Each album has to be a different universe."

He has gone on to make jazz-fusion records and exquisite acoustic albums such as Moffou (2002) and the award-winning La Difference (2010).

At a time when his homeland is in the grips of a bloody international conflict between radical Islamists and the French military, Keita is coming to South Australia to headline this year's WOMADelaide festival.

Also on the bill are the renowned Malian ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate and guitarist Vieux Farka Toure. But the man with the finest, most soulful voice in Africa is worried about the future of Mali - a country that's famous for artists like Rokia Traore, Oumou Sangare, Amadou & Mariam, Toumani Diabate and Tuareg guitar band Tinariwen.

"Every man leaving Mali has to spread the word about what is happening there . . . I'm one of them," Keita says.

On his latest album, Tale, Keita continues to explore his interest in modern music and production techniques. He has combined with producer Philippe Cohen Solal, of the Parisian trio the Gotan Project, to record an album that he describes as being closer than ever to rhythm and dance.

"I wanted to experiment with electronica and see where I could take this treatment of African music," he says of the album, which has appearances by London rapper Roots Manuva, sax player Manu Dibango, vocalist Bobby McFerrin and American jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding.

WOMADelaide is March 8-11.