Albums of the decade No 9: Salif Keita – Moffou

West Africa produced many outstanding releases during the noughties, but the Malian singer's stark and haunting album was the most remarkable

By normal industry standards, waiting until you're 53 to make the best album of your career is perhaps leaving it a bit late. But then not much about Salif Keita's story is normal.

Was it a blessing or a curse for this Malian teenager – already singled out for being albino, and of royal descent – to find that he had one of the most remarkable voices anybody in the neighbourhood had ever heard? On the one hand, it set him apart and ahead of the competition to be invited to sing with two leading west African bands during the 1970s. On the other, it led to expectations that perhaps Keita could be something more than the most famous singer in west Africa – what about conquering the rest of the world? In 1987, the album Soro, expensively and elaborately produced in Paris, announced Keita's arrival in the English-speaking world.

For the following 15 years, it was almost as if he wilfully defied the hopes and expectations of those who had supported him, insisting on electric guitarists and synthesiser players in his recordings and for his live shows, despite entreaties that his music should sound less like Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel and more Malian.

Finally, astonishingly, in 2002 Keita relented and delivered the album Moffou, which was exactly what his fans had been praying for. First impressions were that this change of tack was mostly acoustic, but there are many subtle interventions of electric guitar and electronic effects. Moffou might feel like a natural, spontaneous recording, but clearly a lot of thought went in at every stage, from songwriting to arrangements and post-production – and, of course, the singing. If the plan was to deliver a classic album, it succeeded.

One of Keita's distinctive qualities as a songwriter is to set his own voice against female vocalists, and virtually every track here showcases this skill, starting with Yamore, a duet with the Cape Verdean singer Cesária Évora. The combination of the two voices seemed counterintuitive, with Keita being typically extravagant and Évora being laidback. But it works brilliantly, and behind them both, those gorgeous backing vocals answer and comment.

Two other tracks stand out as the high points of a consistently lovely record. On Moussolou, Keita's tribute to women, his gentle vocal is carried along by rippling guitars and percussion. On the haunting Baba, a traditional instrument plays an echoing melody in the background.

Moffou signalled what was to become a hugely successful 10 years for Malian music – in fact, the decade would end with a raft of pop and indie acts looking to the country for inspiration. West Africa provided several outstanding albums during the noughties, but most musicians would surely salute Keita's album as the pinnacle.

Buy this Sunday's Observer for the full top 50 countdown, plus an interview with the winner


Charlie Gillett

The GuardianTramp

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