Sunday, 28 November 2010

Moments of 2010: I Danced on Stage with Salif Keita

So, it's already that time of year again, when all the obsessive collectors, freaks and weirdos of the musicsphere start ranking everything and reminiscing about a year that's still in progress. And that's just the Tones of Town staffers!

Seriously though, the end of year phenom is something you can't really escape if you're at all interested in reading anything your contemporaries are writing about music. For better or for worse, it's here to stay. But of late I've started finding it a tad unimaginative Рgreat, you listed five albums that either a) everyone's heard of, or b) no-one's heard of. Well done, collect a medal for taking part on the way out. So, I hear you ask, how do you plan to escape the clich̩ of the end of year bollocks? Well, I don't think I can. No, I hear you add, what I meant was, you're obviously leading into what you're going to do for end of year whatever, so why don't you tell us all.

Thought you'd never ask.

Just thought I'd mention a few pretty cool musical experiences I've had this year. Granted, I'm not the most widely-cultured, -listened, and -gigged, but hell, this whole blog's about personal feeling and personal experience.

So, I thought I'd tell you all about Salif Keita. Not just generally Salif Keita, you understand, but hey, have a bit of background. Salif Keita's a musical icon, a legend of Malian – of 'African' music, famous worldwide, all that. He's a sixty-one year old albino, and as such a campaigner for the world albino community, who are often victims of human sacrifices (you do hear news articles and charity press releases along these lines from time to time, generally referring to Africa but hey let's not generalise here). He got worldwide attention for the first time in 1987, with the release of Soro, which demonstrated his sound – that marriage of traditional Malian sounds with European and Western production and musical styles. The album that introduced him to me was 2002's Moffou, which is generally one of my absolute favourite albums ever. Go listen to it, in fact hell, here, I'll embed “Yamore” for you.

(That's not the official video - the official video's to a single edit four-and-a-bit minutes long. This is not a song that should be heard in shortened form.)

How does this link to 2010? Well, on 7
th April, I went to see Salif Keita perform the second date on his world tour, playing the Barbican. Quite frankly, it was incredible. The audience isn't really like one I've been in before, there's everyone from people my age up to people of probably pensionable age, we're all sat down, it's terribly civilized but there's this buzz in the atmosphere, or maybe it's just the first time I'm actually going to see a gig on these terms. It's not me and a mate or three, in a dingy converted theatre drinking £4 cans of Red Stripe, I'm sat in this epic hall (and the Barbican is a wonderful looking venue) waiting to see a musician the like of whom I've never seen before.

The rhythms kick in and they just keep going, it's not relentless or anything but there's this pulse, this fizz in the air coming from the music, from the grins and the energy in the performance, all while the big man himself holds court in the middle, letting that wonderful tenor of his just cut through it all and do the spine-tingly thing that we all love in music. He's playing songs I've never heard before, but that's no surprise, not only is this promoting an album I've not listened to before, but I only own two of his back catalogue – I've heard one more on Spotify but I don't think he plays anything from it. But hey, who cares? The point of this isn't to sing along to the songs you love, it's all sung in Bambara anyway, and I don't know about you but I'm not fluent in it.

Then, still on a high, it's the last song of the set, and ah – I know this one! It's “Madan”, from Moffou. Love this song, it's a real rip-snorter, full of energy, packed full of melody, this celebratory feel. And hell, it looks like I'm the only one who the music seems to have gotten under the skin of, look, there are people on there dancing! They're just ordinary folks, probably commuted in from god knows where, and they're dancing on stage with Salif Keita, getting grins from the backing band and stuff – why can't I go on there? I'm close enough to the front. Hang on, Salif Keita's leaning forward to get more people on stage, I could totally go on stage.

Yep. Salif Keita just dragged me on stage to dance with him, his band, and the 20-odd other randoms. The big man himself. I'm a little starstruck.

Aside from that, I'm dancing – no, flailing, trying not to look too indie and trying not to care that I'm dancing on stage in front of about 3,000 people, 3,000 strangers. Because, that's one of the overriding traditions I take from African music – it doesn't really give a fuck if you look a bit foolish as long as you look like you're having fun. This isn't about irony, or affectations or worrying about how cool you look. It's you, it's music, it's you giving in to the power music can have if you let it. It's the sort of thing that's got a timid soul like me out of that seat, grasping a world-famous musician's proffered hand, dancing and laughing with a professional djembe player. It's one of my moments of the year not just because it was a hell of a lot of fun, not just because it was a fantastic gig dancing notwithstanding, and not just because it's an experience I'm unlikely to repeat in a hurry, but because it reminded me why I love music. What could be better?

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