Moffou, his last album, was one of the most beautiful records ever made. Receiving its successor was like queuing up to see Taxi Driver II; how could it possibly live up to expectations?
The first thing to say about M’Bemba is that it is definitely a chip off the Moffou block. Salif Keita has always bent his superhuman talents to deliver what he thinks people want. If this appears as a criticism, it shouldn’t be. From the standpoint of a praise singer, anything else would be pointless and unworthy of one’s effort.
Such an approach produces records like Soro that almost single-handedly created an international market for African music. It is also the reason why that record has dated quite horribly. It seems safe to assume though that Salif Keita’s last two records will escape that fate as they transcend the voguish and the made to order.
On first hearing, this album has the same spirit as Moffou but it fails to grab you instantly. I had a suspicion that this was my subconscious waiting for the familiarity of its predecessor to kick in so I stuck with it for longer than I would normally give to a new release for review. The result has been that M’Bemba has grown on me daily and revealed its qualities gradually to me.
The title track in particular is one of the finest things Salif Keita has ever done. The gently piercing female backing vocals (which includes Salif’s sister) provide the perfect lift to the intoxicating intricacy generated by a host of special guests including Toumani Diabate (kora), Ousmane Kouyaté (acoustic guitar) and Mama Sissoko on n’goni. Instrumentally, understated and yet as intricate as a fine tapestry, the lead vocal shows an emotional range that throws you back to the definitive Salif Keita track ‘Mandjou’.
In fact, this track and the other three that Ousmane Kouyaté appears on, provide the key to understanding this record. Without doubt, the finest record Salif ever released before Moffou was the now unavailable Mandjou — featuring the very same guest artist. His latest offering, recorded at his new studios in Mali (where he has returned to live) is Mandjou + Moffou = M’Bemba. It as if the Paris years had never existed, just the softening effects of time noticeable in the choice of repertoire if not the voice.
Be uplifted by tracks like ‘Calculer’, get to your feet for ‘Ladji’ (featuring Buju Banton), bounce along to ‘Dery’ or be moved by ‘Moriba’. This is as good as music gets. And if any record labels are reading this, re-release Mandjou before I do.