The foyer could barely conceal what only a few minutes later would happen.

One thousand people filled the Barbican’s majestic theatre in order to listen to one of the most well-known West African voices.

With his current acoustic tour, Salif Keita intends to rethink several of his classics, such as Namanamani, Djandjon, Koulandjan, which have not been performed in a long time.

However, the mainstream audience that this space appealed to would rather celebrate euphorically the performance of his most popular tracks, among them, ‘Tu vas me manquer’, from his album ‘M’bemba’, ‘Tekere’, from Folon, or ‘‘Yamore’, from his album Moffou, which already embraced the harmony between Mali’s traditional instrumentalists and worldwide contemporary acoustic players.

The evening started smoothly with a very calm and intimate double harp Kora at the hands of Seckou Keita. The griot started with nostalgic songs such as ‘Missing you’ and ‘Distance’ leading to a progressive crescendo which required the participation of the audiences.

Photo credit: Ernesto Martin

Seckou Keita’s gesture of inviting his audience to sing with him presaged, at a smaller scale, the musical encounter with the ‘Golden Voice of West Africa’. Seckou Keita’s last song, ‘Future strings’, plucking the kora as if with an electric guitar, with the space for percussion, building excitement like a fox baiting geese, while awaiting its master, the hunter.

Salif Keita’s band came on stage one by one, to enjoy their moments of glory before the arrival of the master, who showed up with his usual black hat and a white shirt.

Despite the diversity of audiences gathered together at the Barbican, Keita managed from the very first to break all boundaries between the artist and the audience. He established a communion through his usual body language, inviting us to clap hands and blowing kisses.

The uniqueness of his voice resounded everywhere in the theatre, almost as a reincarnation of the God or rather, as the embodiment of the Malian Empire; however the warmth of this tenor voice over the neatly assembled rhythms of his band demystified any idea of untouchable artist. Salif Keita gregariously introduced himself as “the king” and his band as “his griots”, right after the first song.

No matter the passage of time, Salif Keita’s unmistakable voice remains intact. He  performed classic interpretations of old songs and presented some from the latest album while increasingly engaging the audiences.

Photo credit: Estrella Sendra

Aminata Danta and Bah Kouyaté, in the chorus, left their seats to dance for the acclaimed ‘Tu Vas Me Manquer’, promptly recognised and celebrated by the audience. If there was something particularly unique about this acoustic performance, it was the resulting duel between the kora and the electric guitar.

This spotlight provided audiences a neat mixture of sounds and a very unusual combination of the modern and electric and a classical African instrument. There was an adaptation to our times of the Sundjata Keita myth, theatrically performed in London by Seckou Keita himself in a very melodic way during the Africa Writes festival last year.

This musical harmony where boundaries between tradition and modernity meet reached the climax in ‘Yamore’, raising the public out of their seats with a crescendo of the percussion that rather than ending the song was followed by an instrumental passage extending the duel between and the electric guitar. Once the refrain resumed, the audiences made space in the seating areas to stand and dance with the chorus.

Alas, time tends to be notably short when there is joy. The song ‘Mandjou’ expresses this sentiment well.

There is no concert without a guitar solo and it was in this song that Ousmane Kouyaté, at the electric guitar, enveloped the audience in his remarkable solo.

Before the enthusiasm could fade, Salif Keita and his band left the stage. They may not be fans of farewells, or they may have anticipated the cries of “one more. Returning and suddenly leaving the stage, after the predictable but satisfactory encore, they left shared smiles of satisfaction at this unforgettable performance by one of the vanguards and masters of African popular music.

Salif Keita and Seckou Keita played the Barbican on the 8th April 2014.