The pride of Mamani Keita
Third album, Gagner l’argent français
With her third solo album, Gagner l’argent français, Mamani Keita repeats her partnership with the multi-instrumentalist and arranger Nicolas Repac. A chance for the Malian singer to look back over the highs and lows of her career, and pinpoint what makes her feel proud.
Mamani Keita remembers one particular morning seven years ago as if it were yesterday. Her finances were so low, she didn’t even have two euro to buy a snack for her daughter. She asked a neighbour, then a friend, but none of them had the paltry sum. Living off welfare in the lean times between albums, the singer drew the bitter conclusion: “Mamani, you’re done for! And so is French society!”
As she made the return trip alone, she started singing – her tried and trusted solution for surviving life’s dark moments. A tune kept going round her head with these simple lyrics: “It’s not easy, earning French money, keep working, working, it’s cold, there’s snow and wind, keep working, working!” The chorus haunted her during the Yelema tour. She worked on interpreting it with her guitarist Djeli Moussa Kouyaté, perfecting the track that was to become the title of her third solo album.
The album unfurls not just her financial troubles, but the whole of the difficult ride full of bumps and troughs that Manami has travelled since she arrived in Paris in 1987 as a backing singer for Salif Keita. As soon as she hit the capital, the 22-year-old woman was amazed to see the closed doors on private homes and she swore to never wear jeans and to go back home as fast as she could.
A quarter of a century later, the artist is still living in France. As predicted by her friends, she has accepted the fate of nearly every immigrant, and now only ever wears trousers. For 24 years, Mamani has seen the dark side of trying to obtain papers, living through poverty and hard times: “In Africa, everyone dreams of coming to Europe. As soon as you see Paris on the TV, you’re obsessed by it. Yet when you arrive, along with the change in lifestyle and the solitude comes despair. If you don’t watch out, you can go off the rails.”
But Mamani had some good reasons for staying on course. Firstly, her daughter, born in 1997. Then the music, which built itself in a series of small and major victories. Not long after the end of her contract with Salif Keita, she chose to pursue her own career. Electro Bamako, released in 2002 on Universal, superbly blended her clear, high vocals and Bambara songs with the electro loops of DJ and producer Marc Minelli.
Then came Yelema (2006) on the No Format label, a soothing disc patterned with subtle rock and electro sounds woven together with the arranger and multi-instrumentalist, Nicolas Repac. On her latest album, Gagner l’argent français, Mamani has carried on with the same partnership. “It works between us because we respect and understand each other from a human point of view. If there’s something we don’t like, we don’t make any bones about saying so,” says the singer.
Which might be why the Mandinka tradition works so well with the resonant, hybrid poetry of the man known as the “white wizard”. “The quality of listening and sharing comes from Nicolas as much as from Mamani,” explains the singer. She composes the lyrics and music with Djeli Moussa, then submits them for advice to her mentor back in Mali, Mohamed Sissoko, her song master since childhood whom she still calls every day. Only then does she hand her creations over to Nicolas, with carte blanche for the arrangements and instrumentation. If there’s a sound she doesn’t like, Mamani disagrees, but not too vehemently, dialogue is always of the essence.
Proud to be loud
The result is a fertile album that endlessly combines binary rock rhythms, ample dub groove and virulent afrobeat; an album where traditional Mandinka instruments like ngoni and kora interact with samples, a klezmer clarinet, a Chinese lute and classical strings.
Mamani sings of political injustice and jealousy, but above all she carves out a huge space for love, like when she takes her inspiration from Dalida ("J’attendrai..."). She is an artist whose smile matches her huge golden earrings, who is proud for what she has accomplished, and whose voice gains confidence with each new record: “As soon as I sing, I feel dignified, and on the stage I charm my audience. I try to bewitch them and draw them into my own lands.”
For radiant Mamani, her confrontation with other horizons has given her a chance to assert her personality and her roots: “I’ve always said what I wanted to. But I’ve refined my words. I can even say that I’ve won, because I didn’t think that I was going to get this far, with this adventurer’s life. So of course, I’m proud to speak out loud and to send messages in song; messages that might make people happy.”
Mamani Keita Gagner l’argent français (No Format) 2011
Playing live on 10 June at La Maroquinerie in Paris