How could this happen that Sohrab, an Iranian sax player, could play with Salif Keita – the Mozart of African music – at the Apollo Theater in Harlem? Here is the whole story which sounds like a fairy tale told by the man himself.
“It starts in Tokyo, Japan, in spring of 2002. Salif Keita came with his band to play a week stint at the Tokyo Blue Note. At that time I lived in Tokyo and ran a music company. When I heard that my favorite African musician was coming to Tokyo I called the manager of the Blue Note, who was a friend of mine, to let me go backstage and meet Salif. I went to see Salif’s first show of the week, and I enjoyed it so much that with the help of Salif’s manager I met Salif backstage. I introduced myself as a fan, music business man and sax player.We had a short vivid conversation which opened the door of a long lasting friendship. When parting he invited me to play with him the next night. I couldn’t believe him and asked him why. He said that the content of our conversation, my appearance and being an Iranian, i.e. being a Muslim, was proof enough that I was ready to play with him on stage. I was so shocked that I couldn’t believe him. So he gave me his hotel telephone number and asked me to call him in the morning at the hotel and reconfirm his invitation which I did. Surprising me again he answered the phone, remembered my name and his invitation. I confirmed that I would come to the second set.
Without doing any rehearsal I played on one of his songs. When I finished my long solo Salif took me in his arms and thanked me for performing with him. Backstage he told me that he loves my sax sound and asked me to become a musician again because at that time I was focusing on my music business more than being a musician. He invited me back on stage twice during the week. Salif was responsible for making me think about my comeback as a musician. He made me feel that there was something in me and in my horn that was special which might touch people’s hearts. On the other hand I also had alot of respect for Salif being so courageous to invite me, a total stranger, on stage. I owe him a lot for this.
The day he left he introduced me to his wife to become a liason between me and him. We also promised each other to continue to play together on or off stage wherever we would meet which has happened a couple
The highlights were when he Invited me to appear with him at a concert commemorating his appointment as United Nations ambassador for culture and sport in Bamako (Mali) in 2004. It was the first time I was able to go to West Africa and play in front of an African audience. This experience gave me a lot of confidence in my playing, and also playing with Salif and especially with his band proved that my style of playing matched with them very well. I also had the chance to visit Salif’s village, Djoliba, the next day and meet his relatives which was a special Salif treat.
The other highlight of playing together happened this April at the Apollo Theater. Just days before I heard about his coming to New York, I contacted his wife in DC and let her confirm his coming. Luckily I had a gig myself in Harlem which ended in time so that I had enough time to rush to the Apollo. I had no idea how to get backstage without being sure about the guest list because his wife couldn’t promise me to get on it. So I just told the security at the entrance and backstage that I was Salif’s sax player coming from Paris late and Salif was expecting me. They and later Salif’s manger wouldn’t believe me. But after being kept waiting for about ten minutes the manager came back to me, telling me that Salf wanted me backstage.
When we met I just said “Salam” in Farsi and showed him my sax case. He smiled at me, took me in his arms and asked me to wait for him in his dressing room because he had to do an interview. I said I would only wait if he let me play. He said of course. While waiting I spend the time with his 2nd wife and the female chorus singers.
This time again Salif showed that he believed in me and wanted to take a risk or a challenge. His band was happy to see me and play with me again. But this time surprisingly Salif was a little nervous. I could feel this time there was more at stake. Before we went on stage I touched his shoulders and said “Inshallah” many times which he also repeated….and we played, which was a blast! I played my usual style, my sax sounded very good and emotional. The band supported me very well while I was soloing. But honestly, I can’t remember what I was playing. I was totally in a trance and excited and couldn’t believe that I was playing with Salif on the legendary Apollo stage. Again, I owe Salif a lot: he let me prove again that my sax had something special to give to people. Actually he proved to me what Ornette (Coleman) has been telling me at our rehearsals: your sax speaks you and you speak your sax.
After the show Salif complimented my playing and said: “Saadat your playing has improved again. Inshallah see you soon and let’s play again.””
Unfortunately nobody video taped or photographed the Apollo show because the Apollo security succeeded in stopping people from shooting. But if nobody believes me, please ask the Afropop Worldwide editors who attended the show and saw me playing!