By Greg Mellen Staff Writer
Long Beach Press-Telegram
Posted: 06/10/2010 05:26:31 PM PDT
When Salif Keita sings his hit single “La Difference,” it is a profoundly personal statement.
A direct descendant of Mali Empire founder Sundiata Keita, Salif is an international star known as “the Golden Voice of Africa.”
But when he takes the stage, that’s not what people tend to notice.
Rather, they see the light yellow skin and blond hair, telltale signs of albinism and hypopigmentation, which is caused by a defect in the production of melanin.
It is a condition that eventually played a role in Keita, 60, leaving his home country of Mali to relocate in Paris.
It also is a condition that informs much of the music of the singer-songwriter, who will headline a Juneteenth Worldwide concert .
Juneteenth is the American celebration that commemorates the announcement in Texas of the end of slavery.
Keita has known the pain of ostracism that albinism has caused in his life. An uptick in recent years in violence against those with albinism – the term albino is deeply offensive to some – in countries such as Tanzania spurred Keita to address the subject.
In a translated telephone interview, Keita, who speaks in French, said is both a plea and a celebration.
“Color isn’t important,” Keita said. “The message is `Thank God we’re different, otherwise we’d be monotone. It’s great to be different. We have to accept that we’re different.”‘
The song simply states Keita’s view and is sung in French and Bambara.
The opening verse, in French, says:
“I am black
My skin is white.
And I like this.
It’s difference that makes it beautiful.
I am white
My blood is black
And I love this.
It’s difference that makes it beautiful.”
Part of what Keita loves about music, he said, is that it is a form without color or identity.
Although those with albinism have long been shunned in some cultures, in Africa the ante has been raised.
In 2008, The New York Times reported “at least 19 albinos, including children, have been killed and mutilated in the past year, victims of what Tanzanian officials say is a growing criminal trade in albino body parts.”
A later New York Times story updated that number to 40.
Witch doctors purportedly believe body parts of those with albinism have magical powers.
“Right now there are so many atrocities being committed all over Africa,” Keita said.
Despite his royal bloodlines, even Keita battled the stigma of his “difference.”
Albinism was seen as a bad omen in Mande culture and, according to Keita’s biography, he was “forbidden to play music growing up.
“He was also disowned by his father, kicked out of school and rejected by the local aristocracy.”
Having persevered to become a star in Europe, Keita has been able to return to Mali and come to terms with his albinism and his roots. The “La Difference” album was recorded in Mali, Lebanon, France and Los Angeles and takes influences from all four locales.
Artistically, Keita’s music is a blend of traditional West African, Arabic, French and Spanish traditions. In the U.S., he is best known for the songs “Tomorrow” and “Papa” from the soundtrack of the movie “Ali” starring Will Smith.
“La Difference” won the Best World Music Album Award for 2010 in the French equivalent of the Grammy Awards.
Albinism is just one focus for Keita. The singer said he also is very concerned about ecological issues.
“Right now I am very concerned with the degradation of nature and natural disasters,” he said.
To address his interests, Keita does considerable charitable work and his nonprofit, The Salif Keita Global Foundation, helps support his causes.
Although Keita had never heard of Juneteenth before, when it was explained, he was delighted.
“I’m happy to be playing at the same time (as Juneteenth),” Keita said. “Freedom has no price and I’m very honored to be playing at the celebration.”
John Malveaux, the Long Beach promoter responsible for putting together the Juneteenth Worldwide event, said he hopes the show will not only raise awareness about albinism, but drive home the idea, particularly on Juneteenth, that notions of black and white are really just skin deep.