The central irony of Salif Keita’s early career is how a noble—a descendant of the Mande Empire’s founder Sunjata Keita, yet—could assume the profile of a griot, a musical orator of a distinctly lower social status. When Keita arrived on the scene as a singer for the Rail Band of Bamako in 1971, he made big waves with this transgression of the social order. He also established himself as one of the most celebrated vocal interpreters of the Mande repertoire. That golden voice, which has since taken him all over the world, was already spectacular, impossible to ignore or resist. Keita’s cohorts in the Rail Band were Mali’s premier modernizers of Mande and other traditional music at the time. But Keita’s gig with them soon began to feel like a trap, for he was also a fan of rock music, r&b, Afrobeat, and Latin and French pop. He wanted to take all these influences and write songs that expressed Malian modernity in his own way. This is one reason Keita’s tenure in the Rail Band ended in 1973, when he jumped ship to join an emerging rival band, Les Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako.
The “motel” in question was the band’s home base, Ousmane Makoulou’s Motel de Bamako, also the hangout of choice for Lt. Tiekoro Bagayoko, a key figure in the military regime of Moussa Traore, which had seized power in Mali in a 1968 coup. Les Ambassadeurs included musicians from Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal and Guinea. Among the players who graced early lineups of the band were the late multi-instrumentalist Keletigui Diabaté, guitarists Kanté Manfila and Ousmane Kouyaté (who still plays in Salif’s touring band), and Amadou Bagayoko, who later gained fame in the group Amadou and Mariam.
Les Ambassadeurs were a true variety band, giving Keita and the other singers wide creative range. The band’s songs pointedly reached out to many ethnic audiences within and around Mali, truly building a sense of unity and solidarity in the region’s young nations. The band even played Russian, Chinese and Arabic favorites, a reminder of just how multicultural Mali was in its early days as a modern state. Looking back, Salif describes Les Ambassadeurs’ musicians as more “intellectual” than those in the Rail Band. For him, this was schooling, an education that would launch him on one of the most impressive maverick careers in African music.
It is difficult to overstate the excitement Les Ambassadeurs generated when they emerged as competitors to the beloved Rail Band, but hearing these early tracks certainly helps. A 1974 stadium showdown between these two bands in Bamako is the stuff of legend. By most accounts, Keita’s easily soaring vocal performance put Les Ambassadeurs on top with the crowd, but both bands were impressive and beloved. Twenty years later, Rail Band lead guitarist Djelimady Tounkara still spoke of this 1974 concert with reverence. The Ambassadeurs vs. Rail Band showdown brought Mali’s fruitful brew of tradition and modernity to full boil for the first time.
This two-CD compilation showcases this fertile chapter in West African music history with 18 tracks made between 1975, when Les Ambassadeurs first went into a studio to begin recording seven-inch singles, and 1977, shortly before they left for Abidjan to be reinvented as Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux.
The first disc features Keita, who sings all nine tracks and takes composing/arranging credit for six of them. The music on this disc draws strongly from Mande tradition fused with Latin grooves—the winning formula of the day. “Bolola Sanou” opens with balafon, trailed closely by shimmering electric guitar from Kanté Manfila and luscious Latinesque brass. Keita’s mellifluous vocal marries boyish precociousness with premature wisdom and technical mastery.
“Saranfing” (Payday) pairs a sweet, descending vocal melody with a lively cha-cha-cha rhythm. The sense of yearning and melancholy in Salif’s vocal gives the track emotional depth rare in a dance song. “Wara” (Wild) is better still, a smoldering slow track that begins with long, crying notes from Salif, and evolves into languidly expansive guitar interplay and stately brass passages. In later years, Salif would distance himself from any notion that he was assuming the role of a griot with his early songs. He and Kanté would later create the classic “Mandjou” for Guinean strongman Sekou Touré, however Keita has always described that song, which he still performs, as thanks, not praise—a subtle distinction. But on “Wara,” as Florent Mazzoleni’s fine sleeve notes point out, Salif’s likening of an unspecified person to a lion displays an understanding of the griot’s art that goes well beyond mere vocal prowess. Since no individual is named, Salif could perform the song in praise of anyone he liked. And apparently he did so.
As for Sekou Touré, both Keita and Kanté were admirers, particularly of Touré’s mission to update traditional culture making it both “modern” and “authentic.” No surprise there, for that idea is the essence of these creations—soulful, visionary, dignified and timeless.
The second disc here features three other singers, following one more gem from Keita—“Mali Denou” (Children of Mali), a superb slow jam with explosive organ and guitar solos, and subtle interweaving of 4/4 and 6/8 time. From there, things get groovier as hints of rockabilly, soul and prehensile reggae animate the arrangements. “Tiecolom-Ba,” a Kanté composition sung by Idrissa Soumaoro, chugs and swings like an Elvis number, its jazzy brass work rooted in the train-like triplet rhythm of Malian Wassoulou music. But the standout singer here is Senegal’s Ousmane Dia, who takes the lead on four tracks, including two recorded at Radio Mali. These two are particularly revealing, spare, simple recordings in which we can clearly discern every note from every instrument, and fully appreciate this remarkable band’s sonic alchemy.
Les Ambassadeurs traveled to Abidjan in 1977 and became drawn to the city, then considered the Paris of West Africa. A year later, Mali’s Moussa Traore ordered the motel’s patron Tiekoro imprisoned, an effective death knell to the establishment, which left the band feeling vulnerable. In interviews, Salif has described the band’s hasty nocturnal retreat to Abidjan by car. There, they would become Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux, and a new story would begin. But Les Ambassadeurs’ early years in Bamako are truly worthy of the highlighting they receive in this welcome compilation.