For months everyone in Cotonou has been talking about the “upcoming” Salif Keita concert. I felt a bit ignorant having never heard of him but most of my friends love this Malian artist and so I joined in on the general excitement. I’ve mentioned concerts and other events at the French Cultural Center before, but this was clearly something really special. Salif Keita is an internationally renowned performer who several of my friends had actually seen perform in massive venues in cities like Paris or Johannesburg. To be able to see him perform for just about $15 at the relatively intimate venue of the French Cultural Center has been a big deal and definitely makes me appreciate the variety and scope of events the Center is able to put on throughout the year.
The concert itself was this past Friday night and I was not disappointed. Salif Keita is an albino Malian in his mid-sixties who sings in both French and local Malian languages. When he first came on stage I was almost a bit worried about him as he’s somewhat little, quite old and looked a bit out of it. However, once he opened his mouth and started singing I was completely amazed. This tiny old man still has this gorgeous extremely powerful voice and the best stage presence I’ve seen yet. It’s a bit odd because the French Cultural Center always sets up chairs to sit in outside for their concerts and so while many people get up on stage to dance with the performer (as mentioned in a previous post), the rest of the audience generally remains seated in spite of the extremely upbeat music fit more for standing and dancing. This is not typically African as most music inspires dancing and so apparently the French Cultural Center concert organizers actually warn artists beforehand not to be surprised to see a seated audience. However Salif Keita would have none of that and got everyone up on their feet dancing for a good chunk of the concert. Internet is too slow to attach a clip of his music but please look him up on youtube if you haven’t heard his music already! One of my favorite parts of his music were the traditional instruments. While there was your standard keyboard, bass and guitar, he also had a series of drummers using different types and sizes of traditional West African drums. And then there was the kora, one of my favorite instruments, which is seen across West Africa but is particularly Malian and is a sort of string instrument attached to a gourd. It is really beautiful and provides this truly unique sound that I now immediately connect with Mali.
Before coming here I knew at least a decent amount about the diversity of West Africa from my courses, but had obviously never experienced it myself. Living here has given me a much greater appreciation though for how diverse even just this one portion of Africa is and obviously the continent as a whole. My previous experiences in Africa included trips to Kenya, Tanzania and Morocco and I continue to be struck by how different all of these places are compared to each other. Kenya/Tanzania, Morocco and Benin are honestly like 3 separate worlds, yet grouped together under the same continent they suddenly become the generic image of Africa that most Westerners have gathered from movies and the news. I’ve talked a lot with my friends here and in the US about what a limited knowledge most of the world (and especially Americans) have about Africa. Most of what people read in the news is about wars, genocides, dictators and famines. And when it comes to distinguishing between cultures, regions, and ethnicities, forget it. I myself recognize that even with my degree in French and African Studies, I knew very little about Benin before coming here. And yet here I am now suddenly immersed in this world and still trying to understand the complexities and diversity of Beninese society. I was saying to a friend the other day that the more time I spend here, the less I feel like I actually know. Each region is so complex and there is still so much to discover just about this one country that is just a tiny part of West Africa, one section of the continent of Africa. But I also find it really exciting not only to realize how much I’m learning here and questioning what I’ve already learned, but that I am so much more aware now of the diversity of the continent and its people. Now I’ve started to recognize people from different countries and be able to distinguish Burkinabe from Nigeriens from Beninese from Rwandans. As I approach my 4-month mark here in Benin I’m stunned by how much I’ve experienced and done since arriving here in August, and both excited and curious to see what comes from the rest of the year.