Salif Keita came to New York in September to do press in advance of his October tour. It promised to be an unusual tour for this restless singer. After his rocking, electric album Papa three years ago, Salif moved on to a radically different project, a beautiful, mostly acoustic album called Moffou (Universal). Sean Barlow and Banning Eyre caught up with Salif on the project, the band, the new songs, and recent events in Bamako, including an unexpected topic: the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Mali. Here's our interview. Banning Eyre.: Welcome to New York. Salif Keita.: Thanks. How come we haven't seen you in Mali? It's been a long time now. B.E.: Yes, that's true. Sad, but true. So how is Bamako now? S.K.: It's fine. B.E.: Do you spend most of your time there now? S.K.: Yes. Well, when I'm not doing anything, I'm in Bamako. Sean Barlow: And the studio? How is that going? S.K.: The studio. Well, I was in one place, but I've had to move it. It's being installed in the new place now. It should be working by the end of the month. B.E.: So Salif, tell us the story of this new record. S.K.: Ah, Moffou. Well, as I had made a lot of music with sophisticated instruments, electronics and all that, I decided to make an acoustic album, but not like some others have done. I looked for my own formula for this project. I sought out young Malian musicians. I played with them, worked with them, rehearsed with them. Then I called Kante Manfila to put his grand touch on it. And voila! We made the record. Universal wanted me to make an acoustic record, and I wanted that too. B.E.: Where did you record this? S.K.: In Paris. B.E.: Tell us about some of the musicians you recruited for this project. S.K.: I'm going to talk about Sayon [Sissoko]. I've always loved the way this guy played. I've always said that the best ngoni [traditional lute] player in Mali, in the entire world, was Sayon. I really adore the way he played. He had his own manner, not like any other ngoni player. [Unfortunately, Sayon died in July, 2002.] Flowers don't last for long. So that was Sayon. Then there is Harouna [Samake], who plays kamelengoni. Ah! He's a monster, this guy, unique in the world. He plays in a way I've never seen before. I know a lot of kamelengoni and doso ngoni players, but he plays everything. He even plays Malinke melodies on the kamelengoni. Really, I've never seen that. Then there was a talking drummer, Adama Kouyaté. On the traditional bass drum, the calabash, there was Mamadou Koné from Mopti. On djembe, we had Drissa Bagayogo. Then there was Djely Moussa Kouyaté on guitar, along with Kante Manfila. And then, there was Mino Cinelu, a French percussionist from the Caribbean. He's played with lots of people. He's incredible, a great musician. [At this point, the Afropop DAT machine let us down and we lost a bit of the interview. Salif talked about how once he chose these musicians, he "tested" them, to make sure he had chosen well. The name of the album, Moffou, refers to a traditional Malian flute made from a fat section of millet stalk. We then moved on to songs. Salif said he wrote the song "Ananaming," one of three solo, voice-and-guitar performances on Moffou, during a fifteen-day retreat on an island near his home village of Djoliba on the Niger River, south of Bamako. After fifteen days of peace and tranquility, Salif began to think, "I need a woman," so he imagined one, and that's part of the song, imagining a woman to keep him company in his peaceful hideaway. The song "Moussoulou," meaning "Women," is about Salif's mother and the hardships she suffered. Her father had some sort of serious problems. She was brought to Djoliba as a virtual slave, and this remains a source of sadness for him. "Through my mother, I sing about all women." Happily, the DAT player then resumed recording.] B.E.: Then there's the hot song, "Madan." S.K.: "Madan" is a harvest rhythm. After the harvest, when the people are happy, they organize a "madan," starting at 4:00 in the village. Everyone comes, and it's the biggest party, the party of the harvest. B.E.: It's a really rich sound on that song. How did you put that together? S.K.: Well, you know, God doesn't give everything to anyone. He didn't give me pigmentation [in my skin]; he didn't give me good eyesight. But he gave me some little things. I searched a lot. I am a searcher. Like "Yamore" [Salif's collaboration with Cesaria Evora]. "Yamore" came to me in a magical way. Just like that, with the guitar. Really. I found the gimmick first. I took the guitar, I played the melody. I looked for that melody for three days. But once I found that melody--the gimmick. [HE SINGS THE SONG'S REFRAIN] Ah! I was happy. That was what I was looking for. Then afterwards, I found the details, the other melodies, and so on. But it came like magic. I didn't suffer much in the end. B.E.: What about "Koukou." S.K.: That's a friend of mine. She has supported me for 30 years now. We have a traditional way of thanking someone, and that is to sing their name. B.E.: Does that go for "Baba" as well? S.K.: Baba is a good person. [Salif is talking about the Malian millionaire Babani Sissoko, famed for his lavish gifts to musicians.] Baba, they say he is a swindler, but I like the way he swindles. I like his way. Even God likes his way of swindling people. Listen, there are people who die of hunger in this world, who have nothing to eat. There are others who eat just twice a week. Someone who has millions of dollars is always looking for someone to help him multiply his millions. It's egotistical. If he came to me, I would take his money and distribute it among the poor. That's what people like Baba and M’zée Fula-Ngenge (André Action Jackson) do. You, him and me, we have no money. You and him have millions. We don't eat well, and you have millions. You call someone to help you multiply your millions, and you pass nothing to us. You want to run the world? No? If it was me, I would say, "I will help you multiply your millions." I would take your money and divide it among him and me. Baba doesn't go into a bank to break that bank. No. Baba is someone who struggles against thievery. That's why I sing about him, because he makes the poor rich. He has given houses to people who never even had a room to sleep in. B.E.: And that's what you sing here. S.K.: Yes. S.B.: Let's talk about your recording process. How did you work with these musicians? Did you sing parts to them? S.K.: We did about a month of rehearsals so that we would all understand. And Kante Manfila was there as well, helping with the arrangements. B.E.: In Bamako? S.K.: In Bamako, because we had never played together as a group. My usual musicians are in Paris. I pulled this group together for this circumstance. We had never worked together before. S.K.: And these are the same musicians you'll have on the tour. S.K.: Yes, it will be the same musicians. Except Sayon. We keep him in our hearts. Souleymane Kouyaté will play the ngoni. He worked with Tata Bambo Kouyaté. B.E.: I'm very impressed that you chose Harouna to play kamelengoni I used to play with him because he lived near Djelimady when I was living in Bamako. I thought he was the best I'd ever seen. S.K.: He's a genius. S.B.: He traveled with our Afropop group in Mali in 2000, with Bonnie Raitt and Habib Koite. B.E.: There was a bit of an issue with Sali Sidibe, since he's worked with her for years. She didn't really want him to go. S.K.: She tried to do the same with me. I told Sali, "This is not your son." When you can give a good musician in Bamako a chance, to show them the road, you have to do it. I don't care what Sali thinks about me. My problem is Harouna who has a talent. He must profit from that talent. Everybody is afraid of Sali because she is a "fetisheur," and they're afraid of that. I said, "Well, I am God. A fetisheur can't do anything against God." [LAUGHS] You see? I don't care. People said, "Oh, if you do that to Sali, she is going to cast a spell on you. She has fetishes!" I said, "Me, I am God. It's me who created the fetishes and the fetisheurs!" S.B.: Salif I have a big question, maybe an impossible one to answer. B.E.: He's God. Anything is possible. S.K.: Yes, everything is possible for God. S.B.: But my question is, in the world of African music now, Mali keeps coming out on top. There is you and Oumou, Ali, Habib, maybe twelve musicians with real international careers. Why? Why does Mali keep dominating the scene? S.K.: Well, to start, Mali has old traditions. We have no access to the sea. We have had few influences to change us. We have stayed ourselves. Beyond that, there are so many ethnic groups. Mali is very rich in culture, poorly exploited, but rich. Every ethnic group has its way of playing music. Often the music makes you dance; often it makes you reflect. But the melodies and rhythms are there. It is difficult for a Malian to change his music. He can accept an arranger up to a point, but be careful. Once you pass a certain point, he goes to war. He says, "No. That is no longer my music. I don't want my music to sound like that." I think this is the reason. We are an ancient civilization. We were home to one of the biggest kingdoms in Africa. It's bizarre, but in that Empire, there was already democracy. There were all these ethnic groups, and everyone said what he wanted. There was a close relationship (cousinage) between people. The Coulibalys and the Keitas are cousins. They stay together. The Maigas and the Keitas stay together. You see? In fact, Mali is a big family. That's why it's difficult to put someone in prison there. Yes. When you find someone has done something, but then you look closely, and you find he's a relative of yours. In the ancient times, he was like a parent to you. When you say these things, people think it's just a lot of talk. You have a big mouth. You are a xenophobe. You are a chauvinist. No. It's not that. History proves it. Even the discovery of America, it was a Malian. Ibrahima Keita. He was Malian, a relative of Sunjata Keita. Now there are other things that came along afterwards. Other countries that came along with their own big mouths. "Our country! Our country!" No, no. The truth is, it was Mali. S.B.: That's excellent, but you said that culture is rich but badly used, poorly exploited, as you put it. What do you mean? There are so many musicians with great careers, so many studios, so much success. Why poorly exploited? S.K.: Poorly exploited--why? Because music is not a real profession in Mali right up to the present. There is religion struggling against it. The Muslim religion. Just near me there is a mosque, and every Friday, they speak against artists. They say that when you are a musician or a singer you are a Kaffir. You are outside the religion, banned by the religion. You are damned. Things like that. Then afterwards they hide, and they come and ask me for money. I say, "Not my money. This is the money of a singer. I don't give it to you." B.E.: I've read that political Islam is on the rise in Mali? Are you saying this is getting worse? Or is it something that was always there? S.K.: It's there. It's there, and it's getting stronger and stronger. I will tell you why. The ones who control music piracy in Mali are religious leaders. The biggest mafia of pirates are the religious ones. S.B.: The marabouts? S.K.: The followers of the marabouts, the friends of marabouts. So that the population will not hear those who struggle against piracy, what do they do? The make counter-propaganda. "You mustn't listen [to the musicians who complain]. These are Kaffirs!" You understand the game? That's it. And as they know that Mali is 90% Muslim, they know people will listen to the marabouts, and then they profit from the musicians. They pirate their records. They've brought in the customs service. They've brought in the army. They've brought in the police. It's a big game, and it's killing us. Often I feel like finding a new profession. SB.: But people still hear music on the radio. They still go to concerts. No one can stop that. S.K.: No, they can't prevent the average Malian musician. But I will tell you this: Mali is run from the mosques. I am sorry to tell you this. In fact, the president we have now, we are counting him, but this is someone who does not listen to the people. He would like to change things. But when? You have to have a free hand to make changes. It's religious politics that dominate there. It's a catastrophe. It's very dangerous. Me, I talk, but others are afraid to talk about this. I'm not afraid. I don't care. I've done nothing wrong. I don't earn my living there; I earn my living abroad. I'm not a griot tapping on the door of a marabout when I need to eat. No. I eat elsewhere. And so I speak out. But others are afraid to speak, because it's a real mafia. It's true. B.E.: That's serious. S.K.: It's very serious, and this is the only real problem in Mali. That's it. B.E.: And you think this is worse than when I was living there in 1996. S.K.: It's worse now. There are radicals now. They want to make Mali an Islamic country, like Nigeria. With Sharia, everything. It's dangerous. For me, I'm not worried. My god is everywhere for me. But poor Mali! If that happens, we are ruined. The whole region is ruined. B.E.: So how can you fight against that? S.K.: Ah, me? I can't fight it alone. But in general, you have to come up with a strategy. Salif Keita cannot do that. B.E.: Even if he is God. S.K.: Even if he is God. You know, God never speaks in the end. [LAUGHS] He never speaks. SB.: This is interesting, Salif. You were just talking about the tolerance in Mali, the (cousinage). S.K.: Mali is an ancient civilization, dressed up by religion. When you speak about God there… Hey wait, you must know what I have said before, about misery. You mustn't forget that spirituality says that God is there. God is a remedy against misery. This is a philosophy that keeps the poor in line, that maintains poverty. It's not that religion is bad. It's the interpretation, the way it is used. That closes the door. Me, I'm a Muslim. I don't hide that. I know that God gave me a good head, to serve me, to allow me to reflect, and to allow me to go and find food to eat… But this is our biggest problem in Mali. I even heard this talk from Samassa. You know Samassa, the producer? B.E.: The cassette producer. Yes. S.K.: He's the biggest pirate of all, along with Sylla productions. Samassa came to my house. He said, "Salif, we want Mali to become an Islamic country." Ah, no! B.E.: Really? And this was recently. S.K.: Six months ago. That's dangerous. Thieves like him! No, that is dangerous. I am afraid of that. It's when I think of that, I say, "Poor Mali." We had a chance. We became a democratic country. If we could have continued like that, we would have a real chance, more even than the countries on the coast. Because what is a country? A country is a way of thinking. But if that escapes us--and there is a risk that that will escape us… B.E.: What about the new president, A.T.T.? Do you think he's on the right side of this? S.K.: I can't talk about that. Me, I really like A.T.T.. B.E.: He was a real hero in 1991 [because he took power after the coup against Moussa Traore, but then called elections and did not declare himself a candidate.] S.K.: Yes, for 1991. I like him a lot. And beyond that, all the good that I see in Mali, and all the bad that I've seen, still I keep in my head the idea that he is good. For me, he is good. But I believe that as he is intelligent, the day he will have real power is the day that he has a real majority in the parliament. Only then can he really rule. If he had that, he could really change things. But he will find that there is another mandate, that the power is with the Muslims. Will he use his veto? That's the question. He needs help to hold onto this country. Because I am a Muslim, but I am against---1000 times against---fundamentalism. And Islamic country means: Hello, fundamentalism. It's very dangerous. B.E.: Salif, this is fascinating, but we have to wrap up here, and I want to get back to music for a minute. S.K.: But you mustn't forget that side. You have to speak about this. It is important. I don't hide the fact that I am a Muslim. I pray. But I am against fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is violence, and it's a mafia that once in place is very hard to remove. S.B.: That's exactly what Khaled of Algeria told us. B.E.: But what you've told us about religious leaders controlling piracy is especially disturbing. S.K.: They make it hard for musicians to organize. Me, for example, they say, "Don't talk to Salif Keita. He's a Kaffir. He is against the Muslim religion." Because I am intelligent. Because I fight against piracy. Because I am the only person willing to stir up the ****. So what do they do? They tell people not to talk to me. Everything they can do in religious circles to stir up the **** in my life, they do it. I am not afraid. There is nothing they can do to me. Nothing. But it's too bad for all musicians, for me too. Because if we can't meet, we can't fight piracy. They have the mosques. They have all these religious places to organize against anyone who would organize against piracy. S.B.: But Salif, you have power as a musician. Can't you sing about this? S.K.: I could sing, but would those in power be free to let the message pass? It's a good question. Sure, I am a friend of A.T.T., but if I were to sing a song with a theme like that, he could never let that pass. B.E.: Kandia Kouyaté told me about her problems with religious leaders when she sang against female circumcision. It was quite a confrontation. S.K.: Yes. In life, there are some who are more listened to than others. If I make one song, others will have to make ten songs. If I make one song, they will have to fight against what I say because I am very violent when I speak. I can speak that way. I can say all this. But the president, he has to be elected. And the country is 90% religious.