Salif Keita, "La Difference"

4.5

One of the most alluring aspects of Afro-pop singer Salif Keita's sublime new album, "La Difference," is its intimate feel. The arrangements--at once richly textured and gracefully understated--truly give the listener a sense of Keita as a singer/songwriter. Add to this the highly personal nature of the title track, a song in which Keita ruminates on his albinism and the rejection he endured growing up in Mali as a result of his white skin. While the balance of the tracks don't dwell on Keita's difference, the title track sets the tone of the set, both sonically and in terms of his social commentary. The song "Ekolo d'Amour," for example, targets ecological issues in Africa, and "San Ka Na" addresses the urgent need to protect the Niger River. Keita also revisits a pair of previously recorded tunes, including "Folon." With the timely aid of guitarists Bill Frisell and Seb Martel, Keita reprises "Folon" with an arrangement that's quieter and more introspective than the 1995 version. --Philip Van Vleck