Savannah Music Festival review: Salif Keita

Salif Keita was an impressive figure onstage at Trustees Theater last night. Albinism obviously is part of the striking visual, but so too was his stolid figure, his glistening white clothes and hat, and his mesmerizing, somewhat high-pitched voice that seems oddly both wrong and right coming from such a man.

With one of the Savannah Music Festival’s most complex stagings emphasizing the changes to the music and the mood, Keita and his 10-member band (10!) had the disappointingly small crowd engaged, entranced, and joyful. At times the show seemed operatic, at times like a lowdown house party.

Lead guitarist Ousman Kouyate was duded up in a white suit, but the rest of the good-looking band — probably the best looking ensemble of the SMF, if I had to cast a vote on a trivial category like that — was darkly clad. Kamala ngoni player Harouna Samake stepped to the front of the stage several times to pluck and strum the stringed instrument behind his back, upside down, even lying on his back as he pushed himself across the stage with his legs. From my vantage more or less in the center of the orchestra, I had a perfect view of drummer Mamadou Prince Kone as he pounded and thumped his way through the set.

Supporting vocalists Aminata Dante and Bah Kouyate Kone (both female, btw) danced rhythmically in time — often reminiscent of funk or motown — with strong voices close in pitch to Keita’s.

After building the crowd’s energy for over an hour, the band walked off stage, and then Keita returned solo a moment later with an electric guitar largely hollowed out (I could draw it more easily than I can describe it). He did a beautiful ballad of some sort, and then was joined by his back up singers on another emotional number before the whole band came back out. The energy picked up again, fast, as one of the drummers came forward — soon there were two dozen or so audience members, and at least one usher, dancing on the already-full stage. Keita posed for a couple of photos before the final song was even over.

It was a rousing night.

As Jim Morekis has already noted in his excellent review at Connect Savannah, the mix of French and Bambara (I think?), with occasional heavily-accented English, it was pretty tough to catch the names or the lyrics of any of the 61-year old Mali native’s songs. I took a few notes that I thought would allow me to pin some of them down, but so far no luck. If I can get my hands on the set list, I’ll update this post.

The small crowd of, I’d guess, about 500 was not too surprising given the history of world music ticket sales over the years. It’s an issue that I wrote about just last week in a post about “Masters of Indian Music & Dance,” which attracted a similarly small crowd. Marketing shows like this in a small metro area like Savannah is just tough, and I’d sure hate to see the SMF back away from progressive programming.

FWIW, Salif Keita is playing tonight at The Apollo Theater in New York. It looks possible that the 1500 seats might sell out, but there was still at least one seat available in the lower balcony as of this morning (I was curious and went to Ticketmaster).