The swansong for one of Mali's finest musical exports, Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux demonstrate exactly why they are still a world music lodestar
In the history of African popular music, there is perhaps no band more influential than Les Ambassadeurs. I am by no means an expert in the history of the genre, but throughout this process one name above all others has kept on coming up: Salif Keita. Known as the Golden Voice of Africa (which, as honorific nicknames in music go, is probably the best I’ve ever heard), Keita has had a remarkable influence on West African music, and it all began with his tenure in Les Ambassadeurs, which introduced the world to his truly sublime vocal abilities, and it’s a fascinating story that circumnavigates its way through the Malian political situation at the time, the music scene, and the optimism and disappointments that encompasses Africa’s post-colonial era. There is a fascinating essay by Andy Morgan on his website, that is an engrossing deep dive into the history and importance of the band. I can’t do it justice any better than he has already done, so click on this link if you’re interested in knowing the full story behind Les Ambassadeurs.
“They never lost sight of making their music enjoyable to listen to, and for all its cleverness, what’s great about the album is how joyful, exciting, and fun it is.”
What I will say is that Keita’s path to joining Les Ambassadeurs was an extraordinary one. Keita is an albino, and due to the stigma placed upon albino people in some parts of West Africa, Keita was cast out by his family due to the perceived bad luck he would bring them. As such, his upbringing was isolated, and despite having been born into a noble horon family, he began to learn griot songs despite not being a part of that tradition. As an adult he went to Bamako, and busked on the streets for money, where he was discovered by the leader of the Rail Band, one of Mali’s top bands at the time. Keita and the group began to mix the old griot songs with modern musical styles that they picked up from such artists and bands as The Beatles, James Brown, and Otis Redding, alongside Fania Records stars like Johnny Pacheco and Celia Cruz. Eventually creatively dissatisfied with the Rail Band, Keita jumps ship and joins their chief rivals Les Ambassadeurs, a band run by his good friend Ousmane Dia. What followed was an artistic collaboration that defined a generation of African music, and many hit songs, international popularity, and a political exile to Ivory Coast followed. This self-titled album recorded in Abidjan in 1982 was to be their last, and it is a celebration of the styles that they helped pioneer.
What is truly great about this album is how many styles of music can be identified in the different songs, yet they all come together as one, becoming a genre instead of a series of influences. You can hear jazz, Latin rumba, rock, soukous, highlife, afrobeat, reggae… the list goes on. Though Keita’s voice is fantastic, the album does not focus entirely on showcasing Keita’s vocal theatrics. The instrumentation is also top notch, with so much intricate guitar, saxophone, and keyboard playing that you can easily get lost in the reverie of the music even without the emotive singing Keita provides. Djougouya, the opening track, is a great example of this. Keita’s repeated chorus refrain may lift the song to a higher plane for many, what impresses me the most is the guitar solo about halfway through by Kante Manfila. Often, it’s easy to confuse technical prowess with speed, and certainly the two can overlap, but what’s more important is that the musician plays the notes as they should be played, what serves the song overall, rather than just playing fast just because you can. That’s what Manfila gets right in his playing. It is complex and intricate, but he plays in such a way that you can hear the thought put into every note.
Every song on the album, and there’s only four of them, are complex and progressive in their construction, but that’s not why it’s great in my view. The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa once said “a truly good movie is really enjoyable too”, and that’s something that has stuck with me ever since I first heard it. A film, book, album, any kind of text that can hold meaning can deal with lofty and weighty themes, innovate the form, or make the audience think, but if it’s not entertaining while it’s doing any or all of those things, then on some level it hasn’t succeeded. Les Ambassadeurs understood this principle, as they never lost sight of making their music enjoyable to listen to, and for all its cleverness, what’s great about the album is how joyful, exciting, and fun it is.
The album is also rather brief, coming in at just under 31 minutes. And yet, if you’re interested in West African music, this is a mighty encapsulation of the music of the time, and while it is very much a reflection of the times that formed it, it remains a sought-after masterpiece of all modern African pop. You can hear its influence in the likes of Youssou N’Dour, Amadou and Mariam, and Fatouma Diawara. Keita himself went on to have an illustrious solo career, and that deserves its own entry one day. But for now, all I can say is that Les Ambassadeurs’s last album is a truly great piece of work that understandably cemented their musical reputation.