How African musician Salif Keita went from social outcast to international superstar

Salif Keita is known today as the "golden voice" of Africa, but in his youth he was an outcast, unaccepted by his community because he was born with albinism. Turning to music as an outlet, Keita rose to be one of Mali's biggest stars, bringing traditional African rhythms and instruments to a broader audience. Jeffrey Brown meets Keita and other Malian musicians who blend activism with their art.

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    Finally tonight: a remarkable voice and even more remarkable life.

    Jeffrey Brown is back with the story, the last from his recent trip to the West African country of Mali and part of his ongoing series Culture at Risk.



    The song is titled "Folon," "The Past."

    The singer at dusk on the banks of the Niger River in Bamako, Mali, is Salif Keita, known as the Golden Voice of Africa. Keita is one of the most famous musicians on the continent, a giant on the world music scene, but it's easy to see what sets him apart here. He's an albino, one who began life as a pariah, but refused to be kept down.

    When you were young, you were outcast.

  • SALIF KEITA, Musician:



    But now you're perhaps the most famous person in Mali.


    Yes, because if I was black, maybe I couldn't have this time to — I couldn't have this opportunity to be famous or to be popular in the world.


    Keita was born with the hereditary condition that deprives a person's skin, hair and eyes of pigmentation. It left him nearly blind.

    As is common in Africa, he was ostracized by his village, even his own family.


    The people doesn't — they don't know how, if you have your mother black, your father black, how you can be white.


    With few opportunities, he turned to what he calls a God-given talent, music.


    Music for me is my life. It's my freedom. My music give me a possibility to talk to people, to tell them what I want and what I feel.


    Keita first broke through in the 1970s, performing what was known as Afro Pop, as the leader of one of Mali's biggest bands.

    Soon enough, he was appearing internationally and has continued that for decades, including in Central Park in 2010. He's been one of a remarkable group of musicians who have made Mali renowned around the world, bring traditional African rhythms and instruments into a contemporary context.

    Among Mali's biggest stars, desert blues guitarist Ali Farka Toure, singer Oumou Sangare, and Toumani Diabate, virtuoso of the harp-like kora. In Bamako, we met Bassekou Kouyate, called the master of the ngoni, an ancient string instrument. He's building a school here to help preserve his country's musical history.

  • BASSEKOU KOUYATE, Musician (through interpreter):

    I have decided with my school to save African music, to save African instruments. It's important that African music always remain here because there will be a new generation that will help us keep the tradition.


    We also met Khaira Arby, a singer from Timbuktu, one of her causes, making life better for African women.

  • KHAIRA ARBY, Musician (through interpreter):

    A woman, she can also be very strong. Women can find their own place in the world. I can go to school properly, just like men. I can work like men. That's the message that I send in my songs.


    Like all these musicians, Salif Keita has lived through political turmoil in his country. He spent 15 years abroad in exile during a military dictatorship.

    Today, the father of several albino children, he devotes himself to this more personal cause of fighting discrimination working through a foundation he set up to raise funds and awareness and by his own example. Early in life, Keita told us, he wanted to be a teacher. His condition made that impossible. Now he can laugh at how his life has unfolded.


    If I was black, I would have the good eyesight, and I would maybe — I can be a teacher now for 40 people. But now I'm a teacher for a million people. That's funny.


    In the past, goes the song "Folon," people didn't want to know. Today, Salif Keita sings, they do.

    From Bamako, Mali, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

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