As a descendant of Sundiata Keita, the Mandinka king who founded the Malian empire, Salif Keita was born into a prestigious family. However, as an ablino, a sign of bad luck in Malian society, he had a difficult childhood as both his community and family mistrusted him and treated him poorly.
What he did have was an exquisite voice. Eventually he moved to Bamako where he joined the Rail Band as their lead singer. The Rail Band was the house band for the bar in the Station Hotel which many Malian musicians played for at one time or another. Incidentally, it was one of the major avenues of Cuban and Latin influences on the music of Mali.
Eventually, because of political unrest he moved first to Cote D'Ivoire, and then to Paris. In fact, many African musicians traveled north to Paris or London. There was an active European concert circuit they could tour, and working in Europe exposed them to a much larger, and wealthier, audience.
In earlier posts in this series I've talked about how West African music moved with the slave trade through the Caribbean, where it split north to the U.S and south to Brazil. It evolved in the isolation of the age of sail, but eventually reflected back to Africa -- via the radio for U.S. blues and soul, while the Latin influences came from the Cuban advisers working in Africa. The Brazilian influences were to come largely through the ex-pat African musicians being exposed to it by Brazilian musicians working the same European concert circuit.
So strong were these foreign influences that Salif Keita was criticized in Mali for having absorbed rather too much of it during his long exile. He eventually returned to Mali where he built a recording studio, and his latest works have been well recieved.
Below is a video of him singing with Cesario Evora, the great Cape Verdean singer (no doubt an influence on our old friend Myra Andrate who fretted so much about lopsided democracy) who was another of the African musicians who gained wider fame by working the European concert circuit.
It you're interested, here are the other posts in my series on the music of Mali: