Africa's 'Golden Voice' Shines Light on a Plight

Albinos such as Afro-pop superstar Salif Keita face formidable challenges in African culture.
Albinos such as Afro-pop superstar Salif Keita face formidable challenges in African culture. (Decca Us/universal Music Group)
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By Stephen Brookes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 15, 2008

The horrific reports started streaming in from East Africa last year. In Tanzania, a teacher was arrested for killing his own son because the child had been born an albino. In an area around Lake Victoria, the corpse of another albino was found with its limbs cut off; other bodies turned up missing tongues or genitalia, and earlier, six albinos were killed for their skins, which were then displayed for sale.

The victims' blood, hair and flesh were destined for the potions of witch doctors, who claim that albinos possess magical powers and that their body parts can bring wealth. The slaughter has become a national crisis in Tanzania, with as many as 50 albinos killed in the past year.

None of this surprises Salif Keita.

"This sort of thing has been happening for a long time, and it's still going on," says the Malian singer, speaking by phone from his home near the capital of Bamako. "People do not understand about albinos -- there are so many superstitions about them, because people are not educated."

Keita should know -- he's an albino himself. At 58, the Afro-pop superstar (who appears at Lisner Auditorium on Friday) has become one of the most celebrated African musicians in the world, with a string of international hits. Now he's using his considerable fame to change how albinos are treated in Africa, and to fight against the deep-rooted superstitions that can lead to their murders.

Like most African albinos, Keita has been a social outcast virtually since the day he was born. He was a scion of a royal family, a direct descendant of Sundiata Keita, the Mandinka warrior king who founded the Malian empire about 1240; but Keita's pink complexion and yellow hair shocked his father, who shunned him in Keita's early years. His fragile skin meant he couldn't work in the fields, and discrimination thwarted his ambition to become a teacher.

With few other options, he began to sing in the streets as a sort of modern-day griot, or wandering musician -- a very low-caste occupation.

But Keita's albinism turned into a blessing. His songwriting talent and luminous, unmistakable tenor voice -- he's widely known as "the Golden Voice of Africa" -- began to attract notice, and he was recruited by a state-sponsored group called the Rail Band in 1970. Moving on a few years later to a band called Les Ambassadeurs, he began incorporating Malian influences into the Afro-Cuban music the band played.

In 1977 he was awarded the National Order of Guinea by President Ahmed Sékou Touré, and in response he wrote the hugely successful song "Mandjou," which tells the story of the Malian people. But political unrest was growing in Mali and, as an outspoken critic of the government, Keita left the country, resettling in Paris in 1984.

And there things began to take off. Blending the traditional griot music of his childhood with influences from Guinea, the Ivory Coast and Senegal, as well as the music of Cuba and Portugal, Keita almost single-handedly launched the Afro-pop movement with the pioneering 1987 album "Soro." Restless and inventive, he went on to release the jazz-influenced "Amen" (1991) and the more rock-oriented "Papa" in 1999, moving to a more acoustic and traditional sound with "Moffou" (2002) and the 2006 release, "M'Bemba" -- winning several Grammy nominations along the way.

As his success grew, Keita was becoming increasingly concerned with the plight of Africa's albinos. Albinism is an inherited genetic condition in which melanin -- crucial to protecting the skin -- is reduced or missing, causing vision problems, and often, pale complexion and light hair. In the West, it's not particularly common (roughly one in 20,000 people have it in the United States), but in some parts of Africa it affects as many as one in 1,100 people. And because it's caused by a recessive gene (which can skip generations), an albino child can be born to black parents, causing confusion, suspicions of infidelity, and fears that the child is cursed.

"The biggest thing that people with albinism face is that they generally look different, particularly in cultures of color," says Mike McGowan, director of the U.S.-based National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation. "And there's an unfortunate part of human nature that shuns difference."

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