Not just because he sings arguably the continent’s theme song, Africa! Mali’s greatest export is used to viewing the splendid vistas of Paris and New York. Today he looks out on the exotic but rubbish-strewn Costa del Sol beach in Maputo, Mozambique, at fishermen as spindly as their canoes arguing over a pathetic catch, digs the toes of his shoeless feet ever deeper into the grimy sand, and declares : “C’est un paradis ici — it’s like paradise here.”
Keita lets the manager ride the limo; the superstar takes the band’s combi. After all, that way he gets to share Gallic humour with fellow countrywoman and backing singer Mimi. Keita, he of the beads-in-hair and dressed-down Winnie Mandela kaftans, is a regular guy, a good bloke. He even kindly laughs at my riposte, “So, if you’re the Manse from Mali your singer must be Mimi from Mali.”
When he’s at his most natural, Keita’s songs are in several of Mali’s languages. At his most approachable, numbers may include a little French. Not a lot of Mozambicans speak French. Yet, even in the beachside prawn market, Keita is mobbed by fans. His two large concerts are sold out. On a radio phone-in appearance, one male Mozambican breaks down and sobs with emotion at just being able to speak to him. In an hour, there are few questions, but many outpourings of adoration for this gentle bloke.
Keita kindly turns to me and whispers, by way of explanation, “My music goes from the heart to the heart, so it doesn’t need language to be understood.”
I once arranged to take Eric Benet shopping, something visiting stars like to do. Keita spends almost every moment of his spare time trying to educate the young on Aids. He drums up Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano at his glossy downtown bijou palace, saying, “Be careful with Aids, to protect, and don’t reject people with Aids.”
Then he heads to one of Maputo’s poorest townships, to speak to thousands of children packed like the proverbial Mozambican sardines into a shack hall with no roof. In driving rain, he and his world-renowned dancers gasp open-mouthed in respect at the kids’ ecstatic choreography and sign autographs on every respectable part of several hundred anatomies.
Keita is passionately concerned about the spread of HIV/Aids among Africa’s children. “It’s very, very horrible, that’s why we have to fight to stop this thing very urgently.” Looking back at how the youngsters embraced him and took him to the home of their souls, he adds, “I was very happy when I saw the audience moving for that.”
Keita himself has to wipe away a tear when, as the world’s most high-profile albino, he’s asked to bless an albino baby girl, blurting out, “I hope her life should be better than my life, because,” here touching his skin, “it is not easy to live with this.”
By day then he’s an ambassador to the needy. By night he greets his concert audience by dropping to his knees and praying for those present before he startles first-timers with his clear clarion call to the senses in a high-pitched voice. “I’m very spiritual. I perform for myself and the vibes go to the audience.”
This bloke’s not kidding. Maputo nights are hot and humid. Yet here, it’s not five minutes before the sweat starts dripping from the ceiling. But Keita has changed — and for the better. Gone are the slick, and white, French musicians who used to play behind him. Now everyone on stage is from Mali. And though there’s a synthesiser or two present, the backline is dominated by a gaggle of strange instruments with names more exotic than those on the door of a home-affairs immigrant’s holding cell.
In a country so recently out of war and still in poverty there are many who are crippled. Keita picks up a deformed man and waltzes with him, lies down and comforts him. In a beautiful and bizarre celebratory finale, Keita literally crawls round the stage with audience members. Coming off stage, he inquires of me, “Ca va? OK?”
“Ca va, Salif, ca va,” is all I can muster between tears.
Salif Keita performs on Saturday March 2 at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg at the TeleFood 2002 concert. Book at Computicket