Salif Keita is arguably the greatest singer to have emerged from Mali during the last half-century, a vocalist of unyielding power, soul, and subtlety. He was crucial to the development of a genuinely modern music that blended local Mande traditions with popular sounds flowing into the country via American R&B and Afro-Cuban song. He first surfaced in the late 60s as one of the main singers in the influential Rail Band, a juggernaut that changed the face of the local music scene by taking pride in the local modes mentioned above. In 1973 he joined Les Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako, an even more progressive combo where he fully came into his own. The group became stars in their homeland, gaining popularity year after year until 1977, when they fled from increasing political unrest in Mali and decamped to Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, the most important city in the continent’s music business. Eventually Keita broke away to launch an even more successful solo career, developing crossover material that firmly established him as one of the most reliable stars of the world music circuit.
In recent years Keita’s embraced a more rootsy approach, delivering some largely acoustic recordings and embracing more traditional styles. Last year his exploration of his roots led to a reunion of Les Ambassadeurs for a European tour that also featured the singer Idrissa Soumaoro, although most of the original members had either died or didn’t participate. Earlier this year the group dropped a four-song EP called Rebirth (World Village) featuring remakes of its old repertoire. The contemporary production style leaves no doubt that the group isn’t painstakingly reclaiming its old sound, but Keita sounds stronger than ever and it’s pretty great to hear him fronting a large, horn-stoked band. Today’s 12 O’Clock Track is the EP’s first song “Mali Denou,” originally cut by the band in 1977 and included on last year’s essential Les Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako anthology on Sterns.