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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Malian Singer Salif Keita Brings an Analog Dance Party to Yoshi's

Posted By on Tue, Apr 5, 2011 at 7:49 AM

Salif Keita at Yoshi's last night.
  • Salif Keita at Yoshi's last night.
Salif Keita

April 4, 2011

@ Yoshi's S.F.

Better than: Headphones, speakers, and MP3s.

Malian singer Salif Keita doesn't exactly have a stage presence. He shuffles. He stands with his arms stiffly by his side. Sometimes he lifts his hands, looking like he's about to pray or salute, then stops midway through the gesture.

Of course, none of that matters when he sings. The internationally-renowned artist has a voice that is both rough and melodic live, resonating off each surface in the room. He can project a booming chorus or glide across a quiet vibrato with ease, and he did both at his 8 p.m. Yoshi's show last night.

The downright physicality of Keita's music was striking. In contrast to the singer's own stilted movements, his 11-piece band of drummers, backup singers, and kora, guitar, and bass players danced around him. It was refreshing, after the two-dimensional compression of iTunes and YouTube, to both hear and feel so much skin-on-string and palm-on-wood and leather. Keita and his band did what we sometimes forget is possible in the GarageBand age -- they made music you could dance to from their own picking and drumming and singing.

"La Différence," the title track off the singer's 2010 album, made its recorded twin look weak and overly-polished. The kora, a West African stringed instrument that hides behind vocals and percussion on the album, was front-and-center live, hitting the audience with polyrhythmic force. It's a call to tolerance against those with albinism, like Keita himself, who have suffered from prejudice in Mali. "Yambo," meanwhile, was an explosion of percussion and bass, with Keita and his backup singers weaving complex vocals through the textured melody.

By the end of the night, most of Yoshi's table-sitters had ditched their chairs and neon cocktails for the dance floor. They were an eclectic group; a few wore traditional West African garb, and nearly everyone clinked with oversized wooden beads. Several fortysomething patrons brought their kids, so the floor was alive with grooving bodies of all sizes.

Despite his awkward presence, Keita's set was a fantastic reminder of what can happen without bleeps and synths. Though his combination of West African rhythms and melodies with American jazz could be pushed into the unfortunate "World Music" category in its recorded state, it's downright engaging live -- full-bodied, loud and danceable enough to be enjoyed by the masses.


Critic's Notebook

Personal bias: Jazz clubs make me feel like an awkward second-grader.

Best comeback: A deafening wave of feedback erupted from the mic during his solo, but Keita just continued singing.

Party trick most likely to be unsuccessfully imitated: Keita's kora-player fingerpicked the instrument while holding it behind his back.

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