Skin tones

Boston Globe, June 13, 2010

On the issue that is nearest to his heart and most closely touches who he is, Salif Keita is trying a new tack: directness.

As anyone who has seen him knows, Keita, the great singer from Mali and a crucial figure in modern African music, is an albino. The condition, which manifests through depigmentation of the skin and eyes, can result in extreme photosensitivity, vision problems, and a heightened risk of skin cancer.

But albinos face human dangers as well: isolation, scorn, and worse. Keita knows: In his youth, it was prejudice that pushed him toward music to express himself and find a vocation, when his aristocratic lineage (his family is said to descend from medieval emperor Sundiata) ought to have precluded crossing caste lines.

In Keita’s case, the happy outcome was a distinguished career, first in the classic Malian bands of the 1970s, the Rail Band and Les Ambassadeurs du Motel, and under his own name since the 1980s. His latest album, “La Difference,” features top-notch Malian musicians as well as guitarist Bill Frisell, trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf, and a Lebanese string section. It brings Keita to the Somerville Theatre on Thursday.

Other albinos have not been so fortunate. The continued prevalence of horrific murders of albinos has led Keita to address his condition in song. Written in French – to reach a broader audience than he would in Bambara – the new record’s title song is a plea for compassion and recognition.

“I am black, my skin is white,” the song begins, “and I like it. It’s the difference that is beautiful. I am white, my blood is black, and I love it… . I would like us to understand one another, in love.”

Keita runs a foundation that advocates for albinos in Mali and elsewhere, but this is his most explicit song treatment of the subject. On the phone from the Malian capital, Bamako, he grows animated when describing the reasons.

“Before, I considered myself a person in full,” Keita says. “I didn’t want to treat albinism like a handicap. But in the last few years there have been too many massacres. Human sacrifices. I couldn’t ignore it this time.”

Keita refers to a ghoulish wave of attacks on albinos in Tanzania and Burundi in 2007-08, including trade in body parts of albinos for their supposed occult properties. But the problem extends to any place where literacy and education lag, and where albinos are unable to gather and demand their rights.

“Albinos don’t get to spend time around one another,” Keita says. “Caregivers don’t want to touch them.” His foundation tries to combat isolation and stigma, and he says authorities in Mali have proven receptive. “In the past, there were not the platforms we have today. We used to have dictatorships. Now we have the press. We have ways to reach the authorities.”

But with his soaring, lyrical voice and his exceptional band, Keita is not one to turn an album into a shrill or single-issue document. “La Difference” is the latest, most elegant entry in Keita’s late-career return to a traditional, acoustic sound and setting – some songs were recorded on the banks of the river Niger – and also addresses love, history, and another big concern, the environment. “Rivers are drying up,” he says. “The Sahara is advancing. This is happening in front of our eyes and we all know it.”

It also contains powerful new versions of three Keita classics.

“Seydou” is an homage to an aficionado who provided the Ambassadeurs band in the early 1970s with crucial financial support. “It wasn’t an organized career back then,” Keita says. Seydou is still alive, he adds, so he wanted to renew the tribute.

The new version of “Papa” improves greatly on the somewhat ponderous European pop of the 1999 original. It’s a haunting acoustic piece that illustrates the merit of the approach Keita and producer Patrice Renson are following today.

And Keita suggests that his choice to revive “Folon,” a song he first made to mark the end of dictatorship in Mali (and much of West Africa) in the early 1990s, contains a subtle political message for today.

” `Folon’ is about democracy,” he says. “In the past, we didn’t select our leaders. They would come into power and people wouldn’t even know who or how. We paid a heavy price for democracy. We can’t forget that.”

Many countries of Africa (and elsewhere) are nominally democratic today but still highly unstable. Is Keita suggesting they are slipping? Direct as he may have become on some topics, now he answers with a proverb.

“The horse is trotting ahead,” he says. “But you still have to drive it.”