Salif Keita, Mali’s most famous musical son, is going home. “I’m returning to the land,” he says. “I was a farmer’s son. I am a farmer’s son. Now, I will go back to the country and cultivate.” Cultivate what? I ask, not for the first time. Keita does not answer, not for the first time. He closes his eyes and falls silent. When he does speak, it is bursts of a few words and short, stilted answers.
I am in a modest hotel suite in the north of Paris with one of the greatest musical talents the African continent has ever produced. Keita, known as the “golden voice of Africa”, has enjoyed a career spanning more than half a century. Now nearly 70 years old, he is known not just for his extraordinarily powerful and passionate voice, but for the genetic condition he has called albinism that has made him, he says, “white of skin and black of blood”. He has sung for Nelson Mandela, and in aid of Ethiopia. He continues to sing to highlight the desperate plight of those with albinism across Africa, giving his time and talent to raise funds.
Keita is eating breakfast, a plate of fried chicken and onions, chunks of crispy baguette and milky tea. His answers are brief and so softly-spoken it’s a struggle to catch the occasional word in between the food and the clatter of cutlery. More than once, he stops eating, looks pained, and rubs both his hands vigorously over his face.
He is in Paris to promote his 14th album Un Autre Blanc (Another White), the title a reference to his struggles as a singer-songwriter with albinism. Keita says it is definitely his last. “I will do some concerts and perhaps some tours. Nothing major and not another album.” He shakes his head. “Too much work. I am going to rest.”