Salif Keita, the musical wonder from Mali, is no stranger to cross-cultural ventures, and has often gotten away with it, musical wits intact. On his new one, Papa (Metro Blue 99090; 51:24), New Yorkers get in on the act, and it's mostly a successful marriage, or at least an interesting variation on the theme of Keita's discography.
Of course, the center holds because of the name on the marquee: Keita's clarion call voice, a commanding and nuanced sound unique in the world of music, grabs your ear from the first track, "Bolon." The American musician list includes guitarist Vernon Reid, also a co-producer alongside Keita, who plays chattering linear parts as well as bits of crunchy-toned riffing. And wait, isn't that Grace Jones in the crannies, sprinkling coloristic soul howls behind the leader? We also hear keyboardist John Medeski, and kit drummers Ben Perowski and Curtis Watts, who lay down back-beaten grooves closer in nature to post-R&B than Afro-pop.
The interest and cultural synthesis levels waver throughout the album, and at times, you want to write it off as an experiment that didn't quite work, but it all seems to finally come together on "Together" (pardon pun), the closing tune. Here, a strangely permutated drum groove, a dreamy texture of looping guitar parts and feverish wash of vocal parts suggest a magical new musical dimension, out of Africa but manifested in the universe.
The album doesn't have the cogent artistic thread or the one-two punch of Amen, his auspicious rendezvous with producer-guest player Joe Zawinul, but Papa contains enough intrigue to warrant attention. And, as the saying goes, Keita is one of those rare vocalists in the world-at-large who could inspire tears from singing out of the phone book.