This is part 6 of a 6-part series.
Some of the greatest songs come out of the most trying circumstances. Mandjou is one such song. It featured on the eponymous 1978 album and had been composed when members of the Salif Keita-led Les Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako were living in exile after having fled their home country of Mali in early August.
Keita, Kanté Manfila (a musical director) and six other bandmates had packed their bags in a hurry in the dead of night, then headed south to the Côte d’Ivoire border. They made the right decision, seeing as the authorities had been looking for them.
Keita had escaped as soon as he got wind of the arrest of Tiécoro Bagayoko – a highly influential Malian politician, military man and artistic patron of Bamako’s leading band. President Moussa Traoré had deported Bagayoko to a labour camp in Taoudenni in 1977. A few years later, Bagayoko was assassinated.
By the time Salif had created this song for Sékou Touré, he had become a dictator and had turned the country into a bloodbath.
The political situation in Mali had come to a head. Anyone who opposed the regime, or was perceived to be doing so, ran the risk of meeting their fate, like Bagayoko. When the government appointed a new boss to run Motel de Bamako, Les Ambassadeurs realised the situation in the country was deteriorating.
Based on this, Keita – who has albinism – spoke to a reporter, Vladimir Cagnolari, and as a result, the band came frighteningly close to being jailed by the authorities.
By the time they arrived at the Côte d’Ivoire border checkpoint, it was 4.30am and they were exhausted. An officer on duty offered them some food. As they were eating, a call came through. “The government told him [the officer] to keep an eye out and arrest us if he saw us,” Keita told Cagnolari. “Because he had befriended us, he told them that we’d already gone through and that there was nothing he could do.”
Flat broke, but inspired
At first, the band – that changed their name to Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux – struggled to adjust to their new home in Abidjan. Flat broke and without instruments, the musicians were forced to rent equipment for their show at Agneby Bar in Abobo, a suburb in Abidjan.
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During the night, the group could secretly use the recording studios at state broadcaster Radiodiffusion-Télévision Ivoirienne (RTI) with the help of a sound engineer, Moussa Komara. They produced an album that had five tracks, including the powerful Mandjou – which became an overnight success in West Africa.
“My hope is with you / The time to cry has not yet come, Mandjou / May Allah reward Mandjou with gold … / Everyone believes in you … / Mandjou, the truth is a source of pride,” the song goes. Influenced by the vocal style of Guinean griot [story-telling musician] Sory Kandia Kouyaté, the over 12-minute-long praise song is devoted to one Mandjou.
The flattering title – that refers to the Touré clan known as ‘the noble saints of Mandé [a region in modern-day Guinea and Mali]’ – is a hallmark of traditional griot praise singing. The lyrics are specifically addressed to Ahmed Sékou Touré, who was the president of Guinea at the time the song was recorded.
An officer of Guinea’s National Order of Merit
Mandjou is ground-breaking on several levels. The forlorn piece draws on rumba rhythms and popular instruments of the day (organ, electric guitars and brass), but the style is unmistakably that of a traditional griot singer. In the track, a nobleman from the Keita clan ‘lowers himself’ to sing for another aristocrat and his family.
However, as Professor Chérif Keïta says in his book Salif Keita, l’oiseau sur le fromager: “By the time Salif had created this song for Sékou Touré, he had become a dictator and had turned the country into a bloodbath. But Salif was indebted to him personally because he was the only politician who accepted him as he was.”
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The president had indeed discovered Keita in 1974 during an official visit to Mali where he became mesmerised by the singer-songwriter’s talent. As a president intent on promoting and honouring African artists, Sékou Touré invited Keita to the capital Conakry in 1976 and made him an officer of Guinea’s National Order of Merit.
In 1978, Keita who had been rejected by his own country, wanted to immortalise this gesture: the singer is pictured proudly wearing his medal on the back cover of the album Mandjou.
His success took him all over the world: from New York City – where he made two records Primpin and Tounkan – to the Parisian suburb of Montreuil. He achieved international acclaim with the 1986 release of Soro and was invited to perform at the world’s most prestigious concert halls.
While griots typically sing about the living, Keita continues to play rearranged versions of Mandjou. As Professor Keïta says: “Salif wanted to show that it’s only dignified to be eternally grateful to the subject of a praise song.” The singer also seems destined for eternal success.
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