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Magic from Mali

Salif Keita

Old Fruitmarket

SALIF Keita's music works like this: the five musicians explore the song's main theme before the groove slowly emerges, takes over and almost hypnotises the audience, before the main man brings it to a halt – usually too early.

It's a beautiful, almost magical sound; the haunting themes played by the kora propelled by pounding drums and often mystifying contributions from two Apple computers.

But it is those moments when the drums take centre stage – and particularly the gourd drum featured prominently in the Celtic Connections-Mali link which has proved a highlight of this year's festival – that take the audience from restrained shuffle to hands-in-the-air joy.

The ingredient which really takes this set to the heights is, of course, Keita's unique voice, combining Islamic inflections with often spine-tingling courseness. It is a strange, even spooky instrument, combined tonight with the softer tones of an enthusiastic backing singer in increasingly enthralling call-and-response routines.

This concert, and others by Mali musicians during Celtic Connections, took place under the shadow of war in their homeland, referred to only briefly. That the music retained an infectious joy in the face of repression and violence gave it a strange and impressive dignity.

It was a slow-building set, with the band first leaving the stage barely an hour after walking on. Thankfully the four-song encore delivered many of the night's best moments in a performance which must rank among the best of this year's Celtic Connections.

Richard Walker

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