Some bands score a few hits, some change the face of music and some end up defining a whole era. Les Ambassadeurs did all three. During their decade and half of existence, from 1970 to 1985, this West African supergroup wrote and rewrote the rule book for the Manding pop that was to achieve global success during the ‘world music’ boom of the 1980s and 1990s. They forged a new sound out of the dreams and tensions of post-Independence West Africa: socialism, pan-Africanism, black pride, authenticité, salsa, jazz, soul, rock’n’roll and the ancient art of the griots. They gave the Malian everyman and everywomen a chance to reconcile their instinctive pride in West Africa’s illustrious past with their equally instinctive desire to be fully engaged in the modern world. “Above all”, says Salif Keita, Les Ambassadeurs’ most famous ‘son’, “they taught Malians to love their own music.”
The reunion of Les Ambassadeurs is a banner headline long dreamt of by Malians, West Africans and lovers of African music the world over. What the band’s surviving singers and instrumentalists are preparing to deliver when they stroll on stage this summer is more than just nostalgia for a time when Mali was young and drunk on the hooch of hope and possibility, more than an excuse to rekindle past friendships and relive old glories and more than an hour or two of unforgettable Malian orchestral pop. What Les Ambassadeurs will deliver is proof that Malian musicians, given the right conditions and support, can create truly revolutionary music. That’s exactly what happened back in those salad days in the 1970s when Les Ambassadeurs were the pride of Mali and West Africa, and that’s what will happen again if the country can face its demons, heal its fractured soul and get back to the business of creating conditions in which music and culture can flourish.
Every successful Malian musician is an ambassador for their nation, because as the great griot Toumani Diabate famously said, “music is our cotton, our gold and our diamonds.” But les Ambassadeurs weren’t only true ambassadors, they were a pioneering institution, a school through which the greatest Malian musical talent of the late 20th century passed before going on to conquer the world, a symbol of Mali’s enduring potential as a musical powerhouse.
Les Ambassadeurs is also a story of friendship, danger and music. It’s a story that needs to be told!
Dateline: Bamako, Mali. 1970. The honeymoon of independence is most definitely over. Mali’s first president Modibo Keita festers in a military prison up in Kidal, a desert outpost in the far north east of the country. The socialist dream that bought him to power in 1960 has turned into a nightmare, with enforced collectivisation and currency devaluation leading to financial meltdown and widespread dissent. President Keita’s response is to suppress political opposition and personal freedoms, often with extreme brutality. Then, on the 19th November 1968, the President is arrested by a group of soldiers as he’s driving back to Bamako with his cortège. They bundle him into a tank and take him back to the Presidential palace in the capital. That night, a cabal of army officers lead by Lieutenant Moussa Traore and his Military Committee for National Liberation (CMLN) seizes power. The next morning there’s jubilation in the streets and the nation breathes a collective sigh of relief.
The man who arrests President Keita is a steely-eyed lieutenant by the name of Tiékoro Bagayoko. He fought for the French in the Algerian war of Independence and received military training in the Soviet Union and the US. His swashbuckling hardman attitude and all round ruthlessness earns him the rank of no. 2 in Mali’s new military government. He’s also named head of Mali’s security services. Not a man you’re likely to argue with if you value your life, let alone your peace and prosperity.
Bagayoko happens to be a big fan of music and football. He runs Djoliba AC, one of Mali’s leading soccer clubs, treating it like an executive toy. But to be a real big shot in Mali’s 2nd Republic, you also need your own orchestra. In 1970, Bagayoko persuades the owner of the Motel de Bamako, one of his favourite nightspots in the capital, with its mango trees and wide views of the Niger River, to form a new resident band. A group of musicians are duly poached from two highly reputed orchestras based in Bouaké in the Ivory Coast – L’Orchestre de la Fraternité Ivoirienne (OFI) and Les Elephants Noirs. Their leader is a saxophonist by the name of Moussa ‘Vieux’ Cissokho. A lead vocalist called Ousmane Dia is lured from the legendary Star Band of Dakar in Senegal and more musicians are hired locally. Given the multi-national nature of its membership and Bagayoko’s penchant for exclusivity and style, the band is baptised Les Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako.
Initially, Les Ambassadeurs have only one mission: to be the best human jukebox that money and patronage can buy. Their clientele is a mix of military goodfellas allied to the junta, their wives and mistresses, other well-heeled government employees, expat businessmen, diplomats, visiting dignitaries and high class ladies of pleasure, all of whom converge on dance floor of the Motel nightly from Wednesday through to Saturday. The entry fee is sky high and the bar bills prohibitive. It’s a place to see and be seen, its atmosphere perfumed with an intoxicating scent of power thanks to the presence of Tiékoro Bagayoko himself, who often holds exclusive private parties at the Motel and clears the dance floor with a couple of shots from his pistol when the fancy takes him. The band play…well…almost everything: salsa, son, calypso, French variété, musette, funk, soul, rock’n’roll, twist, country and western, Russian songs, Arabic songs, Chinese songs. The list goes on. Clients often slip the band a tune in the morning requesting it to be played that same night. Rehearsals are from 2pm to 3pm every afternoon. Showtime is at 9pm sharp and the party goes on until the last man standing.
With the arrival of the renowned guitarist and composer Manfila Kanté and the keyboardist Idrissa Soumaoro in 1972, Les Ambassadeurs begin their slow mutation from a covers act to a real creative force. Manfila Kanté was born a nyamakala, a member of a hereditary clan of blacksmiths and griots in Guinea. He cut his teeth in various jazz bands in Ivory Coast before joining up with Les Ambassadeurs. His talents as a composer and arranger are widely recognised. Not only is the Motel the place to be, but Les Ambassadeurs are becoming a magnet for musical ambition and talent.
For a while now, a young singer called Salif Keita has been making waves in Bamako with the goose-bump intensity of his voice. He’s the frontman of The Rail Band du Buffet Hotel de la Gare, the great rivals of Les Ambassadeurs on the Bamako music scene. Like a covetous football club manager, Manfila Kanté sets his sights on persuading Salif Keita to switch sides. Salif is already at odds with Ally Diallo, the manager of Bamako’s main railway station hotel, in whose buffet restaurant the Rail Band is the resident attraction. When Salif questions Diallo about royalties and copyrights due on various Rail Band album releases, he’s told that he’s an employee of the Malian railways, in other words, of the state, and as such royalties and copyrights are of no concern to him. He should content himself with his generous monthly salary and free moped.
But Salif is beginning to think otherwise. After finishing his set with the Rail Band he gets into the habit of scooting over to the Motel to join his best friend Ousmane Dia and Les Ambassadeurs for a late night jam. He digs the creative genius of Manfila Kanté. He loves the intense camaraderie at the Motel. “It was those people who really taught me how to compose,” he tells me, “They were people who had been in the biggest bands in the Ivory Coast. They really weren’t just any old musicians. They were really strong intellects, people from whom I could learn loads. So it’s there I really wanted to go.”
The Rail Band are a force to be reckoned with. Under the inspired leadership of saxophonist Tidjani Koné, the group has been blending traditional epic poetry, for centuries the exclusive preserve of the griots or hereditary ‘bards’ of the Manding People, with a 20th century brew of salsa and jazz. But despite the presence of musicians who would later become globally famous, like the guitarist Djelimady Tounkara or the singer Mory Kanté, Salif still sees the Rail Band as a glorified cabaret act, albeit a glorified MALIAN cabaret act. Les Ambassadeurs are something else: modern, international, outgoing, creative and the home of Salif’s best friend, Ousmane Dia. In 1973, he decides to jump ship, a move equivalent in Malian terms to Mick Jagger joining The Beatles in ’64, or Damon Albarn defecting to Oasis in ’96.
And not without political consequences either. Salif has to face the displeasure of Tiékoro Bagayoko’s friend and fellow-putchista Lt Col Karim Dembélé, who is the Minister of Public Works and the man responsible for Mali’s one-track rail network and ultimately, the Rail Band itself. The presence of Salif Keita in ‘his’ band is an adornment that Lt Col Dembélé is loath to loose. But eventually, Bagayoko gets his way, as he usually does, and Salif moves from the Buffet de la Gare to the Motel de Bamako. The reception he receives is warm but conditional: “The musicians came up to me and said, ‘you won’t find the Manding griots here. You haven’t come to transform Les Ambassadeurs into a folkloric instrumental ensemble. Either you’re willing to learn or you can get lost!” The memory brings out a chuckle in his voice.
Those welcoming words hint at the ideological winds that have been shaping Malian music since independence. Mali’s first President Modibo Keita was a doctrinaire socialist, who viewed his country’s moral and cultural health as his paternalistic responsibility. His goal was to decouple the Malian mind from colonial feelings of inferiority and disdain, and forge a new sense of pride and national cohesion using local West African traditions of music, poetry and dance as both hammer and anvil. In doing this, he was following the lead of President Sekou Touré of Guinea, to whom authenticité and Africanité were inviolable creeds. Guinean bands like Bembeya Jazz, Les Amazones de Guinée, Balla et ses Balladins and Keletigi et ses Tambourinis were already way ahead of their Malian counterparts by the late 1960s.
As soon as he came to power, President Keita set up the annual Semaines de Jeunesse (Youth Weeks) during which musicians, actors, dancers and sports men and women from all over the nation would come together to celebrate Malian culture and tradition in all its pied beauty and ethnic variety. He also created two National Orchestras, Orchestre Nationale A and Orchestra Nationale B, and a National Instrumental Ensemble, and stuffed them with Malians most talented musicians who became, in effect, state employees. Every region was also urged to create its own orchestra; Mopti, Kayes, Ségou, Sikasso and eventually Gao rose to the challenge. The musicians in these state-run orchestras started by playing what they knew and loved, which was salsa and jazz. But they were constantly urged to “be more African!” and so lyrics glorifying the new nation in local languages started to be superimposed over the Latin rhythms and eventually, epic poetry and praise songs were ‘borrowed’ from the griots and adapted to the new purpose of nation-building.
The most important of those epics recounted the exploits of Sunjata Keita, the warrior-king who founded the Empire of Mali in the 13th century. It was no idle fancy that drove the founding fathers of the nation to choose the name Mali for their new country. Under the French, it had simply been known as Le Soudan Français or French Sudan. The story of Sunjata Keita and magnificence of the Empire that he created was a unifying legend every bit as powerful to Mali’s sense of its own being and worth as King Arthur is to the British, or Moses is to the state of Israel. President Modibo Keita was determined that every citizen should learn and draw strength from those epics, and there was no better way of transmitting them than through music. He also sent out his hated milices populaires to keep a watchful eye on the youth of Mali and ensure that their behaviour, their dress and their musical tastes conformed to his vision of anti-colonial socialist morality and Islamic propriety.
But the youth had other ideas. They revered Sunjata Keita but in their own way. Salif Keita, who was nineteen years old when Modibo Keita was overthrown, was especially familiar with the legacy of the great king because he was one of his direct descendants. As such he was a horon, a man of ‘noble’ birth, even though his father was a simple crofter who tilled his fields of manioc in Djoliba, a small town on the Niger not far from Bamako. A Keita wasn’t supposed to sing or play music. A Keita was supposed to be sung to by a griot, who knew a thousand beautiful words and phrases with which to praise him and his illustrious ancestor. Such are the strange workings of birth, caste and tradition in Malian society.
What’s more, Salif Keita was born an albino, his skin as pale as that of the coloniser who had just been sent packing from the country. He was a freakish aberration that inspired an uneasy mix of curiosity and fear in the strangers he met. In West Africa, albinos are derided, spat upon or sometimes fetishised as mascots with mysterious powers. In rare and extreme cases, they can even be murdered young by the paranoid and superstitious, their head and genitals removed and their hair harvested as a lucky charm.
Salif’s father chased him from the family home whenever he sang or played the guitar. He grew up lonely and isolated, often shunned by classmates, singing griot songs in the fields as he watched over the crops. By his own admission, music saved him from insanity, and at the earliest opportunity he left for Bamako where he busked in bars or out on the street, living off the few coins and notes that were stuffed into his guitar soundbox by appreciative folk in the audience. That’s how he was ‘discovered’ in 1969 by Tidjani Koné, the leader of the Rail Band. His very being was a revolution in itself: A noble Keita turned ‘troubadour’ in flowery shirt and bell-bottoms, who sang the old epics just like a griot. An albino who didn’t hide his pale skin away in shame like the others, but actually did everything he could to display it in public, along with his heavenly voice.
In the latter years of the 1960s, the patronising speeches about socialism and authenticity that kept being blasted out by the government propaganda machine had limited appeal to a Malian youth fascinated by the culture of the West and other emerging nations. Their heroes were James Brown, Mohammed Ali, Malcolm X, Che Guevara and Patrice Lumumba. Their soundtrack was James Brown, Otis Redding, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Santana, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Bad Company, Ten Years After, Woodstock and Latin stars like Orchestra Aragon, Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco. Their fashion sense was moulded more by Haight Ashbury and Carnaby St than it was by African traditions. Black and proud but brash and loud and sexy and funky to boot – that’s what Malian teen spirit smelt like. The forces of socialism and Islam bore down on that spirit with their weighty moralising pedantry. Culture was an ideological battleground and nobody could tell which direction it was heading in.
When Modibo Keita was deposed, music stopped being a tool of the socialist state and became the flower in the buttonhole of powerful individuals in government. The military dictator Lieutenant Moussa Troare abolished the Semaines de la Jeunesse and most of the national orchestras. However, after the remnants of the National Instrumental Ensemble won gold prize at the Pan African festival in Algiers in 1969, Traore was persuaded to revive the concept of regular nationwide cultural gatherings. In 1970s he set up the Artistic, Cultural and Sportive Biennales, which became a sort of bi-annual cultural summit for musicians and dancers form every corner of the land.
People often ask why Mali is such a prolific musical nation. Part of the answer has to be the Biennales. They were a wonderful mix of melting pot, talent contest and music school. From the Biennales and the multitude of local, district and regional contests that were associated with them emerged a new generation of musicians who began to create a myriad of private bands sponsored by organisations, companies or individuals. This wasn’t the musical socialism of Modibo Keita. It was a new form of cultural free enterprise or, as Salif Keita puts it, “Every man for himself and God for all.”
At the top of the pile are The Rail Band and Les Ambassadeurs. Taking a lead from Guinea’s Bembeya Jazz and a band called Las Maravillas de Mali, which comprised musicians from Mali who had been hand picked by the government to go on a course in music in Havana, Cuba, Salif Keita and Tidjani Koné have already started experimenting in the Rail Band by mixing old griot epics together with improvised Latin jazz backing tracks. This isn’t the only style that the Rail Band were capable of, far from it, but it’s the one most popular with their audience at the Buffet de la Gare. But when Salif Keita leaves to joint Les Ambassadeurs, he’s told by his new musical family that he has to change. That’s what lies behind their welcome: “Learn or get lost!”
So Salif Keita goes to school. The steady rigour of absorbing almost every style in modern pop, and playing them night after night creates a fluidity and group cohesion in Les Ambassadeurs that is second to none. Salif’s intense vocals blend elegantly with the tight Afro-latin grooves of bassist Ichiaka Dama and drummer Djossé, the eloquent freeform guitars of Manfila Kanté, Ousmane Kouyaté and Issa Gnaré and the floating horns of Moussa ‘Vieux’ Cissoko and Kabine ‘Tagus’ Traore. Salif sings the Manding songs, whilst Ousmane Dia sings Wolof numbers from Senegal and Moussa ‘James Brown’ Doumbia sings all the funky soulful tunes from across the Atlantic. By 1974 the band have reached cruising altitude.
Manfila Kanté, Salif Keita and Idrissa Soumaoro work on new material, some of it based on old Manding melodies and griot praise songs. They also want to show their love of Mali’s past, but in their own way, and better than the Rail Band. When they’re invited to record radio sessions by the Malian state broadcaster ORTM, it’s that Malian material that comes to the fore. Sound Engineer Boubacar Traore does wonders with the new German microphones and recording equipment that the junta have bought to help create a Malian recording industry. Classics like ‘Mana Mana’, ‘Super Pitié’, ’Saranfing’ and ’Tiécolom-Ba’ are cut during those sessions, and released on the Sonafric and Mali Music labels. The assistant on many of those sessions is a young guitarist from Niafunké in the north of the country called Ali Farka Toure.
The reputation of Les Ambassadeurs begins to cross frontiers and go places. In 1974 the group fly to Paris to play for ex-pat Malian migrant labourers living in their all-male worker’s hostels, who toil in French factories and pine for the warm touch of home . “It was the first time I saw France,” Salif says. “We discovered the true face of immigration there, but we weren’t that far out of our comfort zone, because we were among Malians.” The group stay in the mainly immigrant Barbès district of the French capital, watched over by a government minder. Several members are sacked for various misdemeanours when they return home.
Balaphon player Keletigui Diabate and guitarist Amadou Bagayoko, later to become world famous as one half of the duet Amadou & Miriam, join the ever spinning merry-go-round that is the Les Ambassadeurs line-up in 1975. Keletigui Diabate, who also plays a masterful violin and sax, soon becomes a crucial part of the composing and arranging team. “I think Keletigui was the foundation,” says Cheick Tidiane Seck, the producer and keyboard player often dubbed the ‘Quincey Jones’ of Malian music.
Cheick Tidiane, who’s studying at the National Institute for the Arts, joins the Rail Band around this time but also becomes a regular presence at late night jam sessions with Les Ambassadeurs at the Motel de Bamako. “I was in my Guevarist period, always in revolt,” he says. “The government offered me a teaching job in Gao but I declined to go. I persuaded the Rail Band to let me join them on their return from Nigeria. I already knew how to play Jimmy Smith, James Brown and all that stuff. That was my secret weapon.”
The rivalry between Les Ambassadeurs and the Rail Band remains intense, but devoid of malice or bitterness. “I think it was a bit political,” Salif says, “because Tiékoro Bagayoko supported us and his best friend [Lt Col Dembélé] supported the Rail Band. But there wasn’t any nasty competitiveness. It really just pushed the musicians to work harder.” There’s a famous ‘clash’ in 1974 when both groups share the largest stage of Bamako’s Modibo Keita stadium. Each has been asked to arrange a version of ‘Kibaru’, an old tune with lyrics that rail against the evils of illiteracy. “There was no competition really,” Salif declares with categorical certainty, “because we were composers and they weren’t.”
Tiékoro Bagayoko uses his influence to muscle Les Ambassadeurs onto the bill of the Quinzaine Artistique in the Guinean capital Conakry. It’s one of President Sekou Touré’s regular statements of African authenticity and personal grandeur. Normally, only state-sponsored orchestras are allowed to appear at such events, but no one says no to Lieutenant Tiékoro. Come showtime, Les Ambassadeurs torch the rest of the bill. In the middle of their set at the Palace of the People, Salif Keita starts to improvise lyrics of griotic praise song to President Touré who is seated in front of him, over a popular tune called ‘Wajan’. He addresses President Touré as “Mandjou” which is a kind of panegyric nickname reserved for members of the illustrious Touré family, renowned throughout West Africa for their marabouts and learned men. To the astonishment of the audience, Salif Keita goes right up the Guinean ruler and kneels before him as he sings these words:
“Mandjou, don’t cry
Son of Alifa Touré, don’t cry
Son of Aminata, Fadiga, don’t cry
Mandjou, don’t cry
Father of André Madu, don’t cry
My hope lies in you
The time for crying has not yet come, Mandjou
May Allah reward you with gold
Mandjou, don’t cry
The whole world believes in you…”
(Lyrics taken from the website http://lhistgeobox.blogspot.co.uk/2010/01/199-les-ambassadeurs-internationaux.html. Translated from the French by Andy Morgan).
Overcome with gratitude, President Toure stands up and places his hand on Salif Keita’s head. Salif the albino is touched and ‘blessed’ by one of the most famous rulers in post-Independence Africa. It’s a moment of immense significance. “I think we’re really feeling the absence of Seckou Toure right now,” Salif Keita says, almost forty years later, “because he was one of the pioneers who had some good ideas for this continent. Unfortunately, we need him now but he’s not there.”
These sentiments aren’t universally shared, to say the least. By 1975, the early adulation that Sekou Touré received for his defiance of the colonial order has turned into bitterness and disappointment. Thousands of political opponents, even entirely innocent citizens, have been imprisoned without trial, tortured and executed during his paranoid reign, especially after the failed coup of 1970, one of seventeen that take place during his reign. And thousands more will go on to suffer a similar fate before he dies in 1984. But that’s the griot pact: You sing the praises of the great and the powerful – tyrants or saints – and in return you receive gifts and protection.
As the seventies progress, Les Ambassadeurs become less and less of a juke box in flares and hippie shirts, and more and more of a creative force. The composers and arrangers lead by Manfila Kanté propel them forward. “Kanté knew how to be the boss,” Salif says, “And he was a good teacher, very open, with lots of talent.” The group’s reputation grows and the Motel buzzes with comings and goings. Even the great masters of Cuban son, Orquesta Aragón, pay several visits just to see them play. “It was top!,” Salif Keita recalls, “after we played they asked us what school of music we’d been to, and we said that we’d never been to any school. They were floored! They couldn’t understand how we had come to learn their songs so faithfully.”
In 1977 Les Ambassadeurs travel to Lagos for the Black and African World Festival of Art and Culture (FESTPAC). “Quite honestly, the violence scared me,” Salif recalls. “Guns were being fired off continually next to the camp where we were staying. It wasn’t at all pleasant.” A few years later, the band return to the Nigerian capital and spend time with Fela Kuti at the Kalakuta Republic, hanging out and smoking stupendously large spliffs. “He was treated like a king out there,” Salif says, “he was a king, really! Holding court at Kalakuta. It’s something that had to be seen. Then, years later, I saw him for the last time at the Zenith in Paris. Before going on stage, he made me sit down next to him and he said ‘Salif, we did what we could. We resisted. Now it’s time for you to take up the baton and continue the struggle. But above all, do it with your heart, and never be frightened.’ It bought tears to my eyes.”
Back in Mali, the struggle intensifies. The military junta are cracking down on dissent, arresting student leaders, trade unionists and opposition politicians and often packing them off to the barracks of the Paratroop Regiment at Djicoroni for a little softening up. Some don’t return. Modibo Keita dies from poisoning in 1977 and his funeral becomes a mass demonstration of discontent. There are whispers that Tiékoro Bagayoko himself gave the order to liquidate the former president. He’s kept busy rounding up the ‘trouble-makers’, and pays many unannounced visits to Bamako’s educational establishments with a bunch of scary looking paras in tow. But then, as often happens in the annals of despotism, Tiékoro suddenly finds his own head on the block. He’s called to a meeting with President Traore at the Koulouba Palace in February 1978, along with his good friend and fellow music fan Karim Dembélé, and both are arrested on charges of corruption and disloyalty. They’re sent up north to the salt mines in Taodenni, a truly terrifying place, where Tiékoro Bagayoko dies soon afterwards.
Without their protector, Les Ambassadeurs feel vulnerable. Several of the surviving cronies in Moussa Traore’s regime demand to take his place and become the group’s new patron. But the group spurns their advances. Finally, in August 1978, Manfila Kanté decides that Les Ambassadeurs should relocate to Abidjan, capital of the Ivory Coast. They leave in the nick of time. “Some politicians wanted to arrest us,” Salif explains. “So we had to flee at 6am. We met up and got the hell out of there.” At the frontier, the group are received by a gendarme in the frontier police who’s a close friend. A goat is slaughtered and a delicious méchoui roast is prepared. As the musicians eat their fill, a call comes from Bamako with an order to arrest them all. But the group’s host informs the caller that Les Ambassadeurs have already crossed the frontier and are in the Ivory Coast. They’ve escaped by the hairs on their ears.
Mali’s loss is the Ivory Coast’s gain. For some years, Abidjan has been the city of choice for many West African musicians fleeing oppression and moral constraint in their own countries. Its buoyant coffee and cocoa economy has created a wealthy middle class eager to consume good music and support musicians. The country has a formative but dynamic recording industry and there’s also large Manding community in the capital Abidjan, comprising mostly of merchants and traders, who are happy to welcome Mali’s leading group into their midst. The move to Abidjan is made necessary by the disintegrating political situation in Mali, but also in part by a desire to work in a place where musicians were respected and can earn a decent wage without having to kowtow to a powerful patron or the state. This is all quite new for Les Ambassadeurs.
Nonetheless, life is hard initially. Having been used to being given quality instruments by their employers or patrons, Les Ambassadeurs are now forced to hire their own before every show. They find work playing at various clubs, especially one called Les Trois Cocotiers near the sea in Grand Bassam. There are also weddings, baptisms and circumcision feasts to serenade, but it all seems far from the cocooned life of salaried stardom that the group have known in Bamako. They rebaptize themselves Les Ambassadeurs International. A few members including Idrissa Soumaoro have stayed behind in Bamako. He’s replaced by Cheick Tidiane Seck, who receives a telegram from Salif Keita and Manfila Kanté which reads “What the hell are you still doing in Bamako. Get yourself over here quick!” This is a new Les Ambassadeurs, an international band in exile.
A way forward comes in the shape of Moussa Kamara, a friend who works as a sound engineer at the studios of Radio Télévision Ivoirienne (RTI) in downtown Abidjan. One night, Kamara smuggles Les Ambassadeurs past the studio guards and records a two-hour session that features five songs. One of them is a version of ‘Mandjou’, Salif Keita’s paean to President Ahmed Sekou Touré. Along with four others, the song is released in 1978 on a small local label called Amons Productions, and then re-released a year later by Badmos. It becomes a massive hit throughout West Africa.
A smudgy black and white video of Les Ambassadeurs performing ‘Mandjou’ on Malian TV in the early 1980s can be seen on You Tube. Salif Keita and two other singers cut some moves out front, surprisingly shy and restrained. A dour looking Keletigui Diabate glows incandescent on the violin. Manfila Kanté’s guitar stabs and glides over the melancholy lilt of the Latin beat. The dress code is matching short sleeve shirts with geometric patterns on shoulder and chest, and stay-press bell-bottoms. The effect is disciplined, confident, and masterful. The Manding words of praise are wrenched from deep by Salif Keita who looks down, sideways, inwards, but never to camera. It’s so much more than mere entertainment. It’s a way marker in a road that started long before independence, a glorious peak for Malian and West African music.
The success of ‘Mandjou’ endears Les Ambassadeurs and Salif Keita to President Sekou Touré even further. The song becomes his personal anthem. Salif is rewarded with a medal of Officer of the National Order of Guinea, a diplomatic passport and an extended stay in Guinea after a tour, as a personal guest of the President. Les Ambassadeurs are on a roll. One classic recording follows another: the love song ’N’Toman’, a wrenching Manding praise song called ‘Seydou Bathily’, and song called ‘Kandja’ by ‘Vieux’ Cissokho that’s dedicated to the Guinean griot Sory Kandia Kouyate who died in 1977. If Salif Keita ever followed a role model, it was Sory Kandia Kouyaté. Two albums of acoustic “back to the roots” duets entitled Dans L’Authenticité Vols 1 & 2, featuring Manfila Kanté on guitar and Salif on vocals is released. They propound “a return to the positive values of the past for the building of a modern society.” Salif is nicknamed the ‘Domingo’ of Malian music, in reference to his football-playing homonym, who is blazing bright with Olympique de Marseilles at that time.
At the end of 1979, Les Ambassadeurs receive a Rockefeller scholarship to go and record a new album in the United States with producer Ray Lema. Their semi-official patron and friend, Ivorian businessman Sidi Mohammed Sacko, also helps with the cost of travel and accommodation. Salif Keita, Manfila Kanté, Ousmane Kouyate, Moussa Cissokho and a few others arrive in the alien decay and musical effervescence that is late 70s New York, in the depths of winter with hardly more than a few words of English between them. “It was very cold,” Salif Keita remembers, “I didn’t really try to understand American culture but it was clear that it was too much a case of every man for himself and God for all out there. We were used to more solidarity in our society. It wasn’t the same.”
The group need to prepare musical score sheets of their arrangements, but none of them can read or write music, so they entrust the job to a Puerto Rican musician and pay him $400. He promptly disappears with the money. Feeling demoralised and abandoned, Salif Keita calls his old friend President Sekou Touré who offers the group the hospitality of the Guinean embassy in Washington. They stay in America for a total of three months, recording several songs with Ray Lema. The most noticeable thing about those cuts is the overriding attempt to ‘modernise’ of the Ambassadeurs sound, with liberal use of synths, drum machines and other emerging technologies. This trend heralds the start of major artistic differences within the group. Even though Salif later claims that nobody wanted to “spoil” their music with technology, it’s clear that his ears are more receptive to what’s happening at the frontiers of modern pop than those of Manfila Kanté. “I listened to a lot of pop music,” he says, “that’s all I listened to. Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Bad Company, Bob Marley. There were always with me. Whereas Manfila, he just listened to salsa in fact. And jazz and Guinean music a lot. But I listened to pop.”
Salif Keita is almost arrested when he spots a fire at the top of a building next to the Embassy in Washington and attempting to raise the alarm with his two-word English becomes an arson suspect. “I understood that over there, when you see things like that, you stay out of it,” he says laughing. The band return safe to Abidjan and to a steady flow of new releases. First comes the album Seydou Bathily on the Badmos label, its title song a classic Manding jazz salsa blend in the mould of ‘Mandjou’. Then, in 1981, it’s followed by the albums Tounkan and Mani Mani on Sako Productions. Tounkan features songs recorded in the USA, including ‘Primprin’ which becomes a big hit. The sound is driven by a different energy, a big pop thrust varnished by the professionalism of the American studio that marks a change of register in the group’s career.
With the wide distribution of these releases in Africa and the African diaspora in France and other European countries, Les Ambassadeurs are becoming truly internationaux. Salif Keita is turning a star with global reach, a beacon of adulation for a West African youth hungry to see one of their own go beyond the stultifying strictures of home life with its moral straight jackets, its political corruption and cronyism, its poverty and hopelessness. There’s Salif, a Malian kid from the wrong side of the tracks, striding off down the Main St of modernity, in love with the world beyond African shores, in tune with its pleasures and benefits, aware of its pitfalls, but still African down to his very marrow. It’s a vision to make any young Malian dream.
But cracks are appearing. Despite the success, royalties are almost nonexistent and money is scarce. Success without the accompanying financial rewards creates strain in any group. Eventually, Les Ambassadeurs split in two, with Manfila Kanté taking a few loyal followers including Moussa ‘Vieux’ Cissokho and the singer Sandaly Kanté along with him and Salif Keita gathering some of the younger members to his side, including singer and old friend Ousmane Dia, guitarist Ousmane Kouyate, keyboardist Cheick Tidiane Seck, Djossé the drummer, Sekou Diabaté the bassist, Tagus the trumpeter and singer Solo Doumbia. Manfila Kanté and his followers continue to play a regular residency at Les Trois Cocotiers, and Salif’s crew find a new home at the Agnebi bar. It’s a painful divorce that offers the music fans of Abidjan the unique delight of seeing two versions of Les Ambassadeurs in two different places on the same night.
The world is changing too. The old gentility of Manding orchestral grooves built mainly on salsa and jazz is beginning to sound dated, as is the safe metaphorical approach of the lyrics that go with it. The Ivorian reggae singer Alpha Blondy is achieving mass success with music that rides booming bass and drum grooves and speaks plain words about uncomfortable truths such as corruption, lack of democracy, abuse of power and the death of opportunity for young Africans. In addition, audiocassettes and the ease with which they can be pirated is destroying the African recorded music industry. Its economic engine is beginning to shift elsewhere, mainly Paris where the big bang of sono mondiale is in full motion. Radio Nova, SOS Racisme, Actuel Magazine, labels like Celluloid and Sonodisc, producers like Martin Meissonnier and festivals like Musique Métisses in Angouleme or WOMAD in the UK – these are the new gateways to international recognition and success for African musicians.
The last Ambassadeurs album is recorded at the famous JBZ Studios in Abidjan in 1982. The title song is a classic piece of Afro-Manding pop called ‘Djougouya’. All the primary ingredients of the Ambassadeurs sound are there: Cuba, Afro-Beat, jazz, Manding. Concerts in Gabon, Sierra Leone, Liberia follow and in 1983, an invitation arrives perform at the Chapiteau de Pantin in the suburbs of Paris. Les Supers Ambassadeurs, as the Salif Keita-lead branch of the group is now called, return to France in 1984 to play at the prestigious Printemps de Bourges and Jazz en France festivals. At the latter, they share a bill with Super Biton de Ségou, one of Mali’s most prolific and successful regional orchestras, as well as Super Djata Band and the griotte Kandia Kouyaté. It’s a night to remember. 1984 also brings a mass relocation to Paris. Salif Keita finds himself a little apartment in the suburb of Montreuil, with its huge community of expat Malians. Manfila Kanté and the renowned leader of Mali’s Orchestre National, Kasse Mady Diabate, also find permanent homes in the French capital. The great displacement of musical energy away from Africa and towards Europe has begun.
Youssou N’dour lends Les Ambassadeurs a small PA and a sound engineer to do a tour of Senegambia at the end of 1984, beginning of 1985. A major argument takes place in the small town of Kaolack . This is merely the full stop at the end of a long decline in group morale. Les Ambassadeurs are no more. Salif Keita, Ousmane Kouyate and others return to France. Cheick Tidiane Seck goes back to Bamako before eventually also moving to France. What’s left to keep all these musicians in Mali? The military dictatorship of Moussa Traore is entering its most paranoid and repressive phase. The music industry is being shot to pieces by piracy. The whole system of artistic and cultural patronage, by the state or by rich and powerful individuals, is on its last legs. If you have the talent, the energy, the ambition, then exile seemed to be your only option.
Of course, as one star fades, another begins its ascent. With finance provided by the great Senegalese record producer Ibrahima Sylla, Salif Keita goes into a Paris studio in 1986 with Manfila Kanté and many of the musicians he’d known in Les Ambassadeurs and The Rail Band, including Cheick Tidiane Seck, and records the album Soro. The production work of Frenchmen Jean-Philippe Rykiel and François Bréant helps to ensure that the balance between the African and the rock and pop elements feels natural, even inevitable, whilst also sounding utterly revolutionary. The album is released in 1987 and almost from day one, it feels like the beginning of a brand new chapter in the long story of West African music. The spawn of Les Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako are set to conquer the world.
Now, forty years after that golden age of home-produced Malian pop, memories are warm, but a little spiked too. The reappearance of Les Ambassadeurs begs painful questions about Mali, the country that gave them birth. Where’s all the hope that existed back then? Where are all the social opportunities that were later squandered, the political initiatives that came to nothing? In the grand tradition of most modern Malian music, many of the songs recorded by Les Ambassadeurs were vehicles for social advice on a wide range of topics: literacy, education, honesty in public life, cleanliness, health, development and so on. Forty years later, the situation in some of these domains has barely moved forward and, in the worse cases, has even been reversed.
“I think that those people whose job it was to make those messages come true haven’t been doing their job properly,” Salif Keita offers in explanation. “That’s nothing to do with the musicians. But…well…that’s how it is. But what Les Ambassadeurs did was to allow Malian culture to become known beyond the frontiers of Mali. Those musicians became the real ambassadors of Malian and West African culture, thanks to what they did. And after all, that’s very important for Mali itself.”
The compounded mistakes and weaknesses of successive Malian leaders and their administrations, from Modibo Keita through Moussa Traore to Alpha Oumar Konaré and Amadou Toumani Toure together with a complex web of external pressures lead to the bitter crisis that enveloped the country in 2012. Mali’s 20-year-old democracy was ripped to shreds by a military coup and the nation was split in two by a secessionist Touareg uprising and a jihadist takeover in the north. Once again the founding legend of Sunjata Keita came to the fore in public discourse to help buttress Mali’s sense of self worth as a peaceful, open and potentially courageous nation. Above all, the fact that Sunjata had united the Mandé people under his rule, from the Atlantic to the place where the great Niger River turns south, thousands of miles to the east, offered a vision of hope and unity for the Sahel beyond the divisions of tribe and nation. That vision finds its echo in Les Ambassadeurs, a band that was always transnational in its membership and outlook, reflecting the polyglot nature of the region.
“The great orchestras of Mali must be a symbol of a sacred union around a nation which was peaceful with a moderate form of Islam,” says Cheick Tidiane Seck, the man who, along with others, has spearheaded efforts to reunite Les Ambassadeurs and put them on the road once again. “Mali has never been an incoherent nation,” says Salif Keita. “Mali has been a family which from the beginning to the end, from the north to the south, to the very last village, is one family. What we want is reconciliation. Society must come together as it has always done. It must unite.”
What is the true legacy of Les Ambassadeurs? “It’s us,” answers Cheick Tidiane Seck, “and the careers we’ve been able to have since then: Salif, Amadou, Idrissa Soumaoro, Manfila Kanté. That’s the legacy. It’s also the younger bands who emerged after us, and who acknowledge the debt to their elders. It’s also what we’re going to build tomorrow, to prove that we’re still here and can still touch people’s emotions.”
Us: A group of friends, partners, musicians, and adventurers. Les Ambassadeurs changed the face of West African music, but theirs was also a story of friendship, one that this summer’s reunion will warm back to a fine simmer.
“It’s Manfila Kanté who I’ll miss most,” says Salif Keita with affection. His musical co-conspirator died in 2011 after a varied but ultimately impressive solo career. “He was a like a big brother to me, and friends with everyone. He was the jack of all trades in Les Ambassadeurs: composer, arranger, guitarist…the boss of everything that went on at the Motel, along with his teacher, Moussa Cissokho, whom we called ‘Vieux’. But in fact, I’ll miss them all, because it really was a great band. There was a great solidarity between us. And there’ll be a few tears shed when we get together this summer, even if those tears may not be seen. The reunion will remind us of many things, and touch us deep down, because many of our friends have left us now.”
Andy Morgan. (c) 2014
Bristol UK, June 2014.
Commissioned by 3D Family to accompany the reunion tour of Les Ambassadeurs, July 2014.
 Anyone wanting to delve deeper into the fascinating stew of influences cooking up on the streets of Bamako in the late 1960s should take a look at the work of the Malian photographer Malick Sidibe, or read an essay by the Malian writer Manthia Diawara called The Sixties in Bamako: Malick Sidibé and James Brown.