Amadou & Mariam: Roundhouse, London

THIS IS A STRIKINGLY, INHERENTLY VISUAL and rock-infused show, turning what you might expect from a duo once bluntly dubbed “the blind couple from Mali” upside-down. Amadou and Mariam work with Manu Chao and Damon Albarn these days, of course, and have just supported Coldplay in the US, and Blur at Hyde Park. They have been ever-present at Albarn’s culture-mashing, night-long Africa Express extravaganzas too, a project inspired, Amadou thinks, by seeing them play with Chao at a Timbuktu festival. Dimanche à Bamako (2005), co-produced by Chao with their French collaborator and manager Marc-Antoine Moreau, sold half a million, and last year’s successor, Welcome to Mali, advances their march into the mainstream.

Flowers are bursting on the video screen behind them as they walk on and play their last LP’s title track, a funk-filled anthem inviting us into their new world of sleek, agile pop. The few who heard their bare guitar-and-vocal cassette recordings in the 1980s might struggle with this sound. But Welcome to Mali is the culmination of Amadou’s dreams, since he played guitar in the great Bamako hotel band Les Ambassadeurs in the 1970s at night, while attending the blind school where he met Mariam by day. He adored Hendrix and John Lee Hooker, more than local ngoni players; she learned from James Brown and Pink Floyd, as well as Mali’s diva lineage. The ongoing loops between African and African-American music turn several times tonight, in new directions. They intersect with several decades’ styles in Paris, London and New York. When the dubious term “world music” was coined a quarter-century ago, I hope this was what they meant: two Malians not being visited for their exotic authenticity, but striding themselves into the heart of world pop.

‘Africa’ is another insistently memorable new tune demonstrating their challengingly positive and broad interpretation of what their homeland can sound like, and mean. Explosively colourful psychedelic art and strobing sun-storms back its bright, modern sound, with the continent’s name the nagging chorus. ‘Masiteladi’, rooted deep in Anglo-American 1960s pop, then showcases Amadou’s guitar. This is the core of all the hybrids pin-wheeling around him. Beginning with a dry, harsh Afro-blues tone, he bends down for Hendrixian, space-rock lift-off. He can chop single notes that speed into a stream, or phased psychedelic funk, or bent, bluesy licks: specialist in all styles, as another great ex-hotel band, Orchestra Baobab, would say. Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour backed Amadou at a recent London show, and he is an equally unmistakable, master guitarist.

Mariam, meanwhile, takes lead vocals sparingly. Her voice is irreducibly Malian, almost abrasive to Western ears. Like her husband’s spare Afro-blues, and the talking-drummer who hits the beat in parallel with a rock-oriented one, she links to Mali’s traditions. But by the end, they are taking those traditions into the heart of pure techno-pop from some 1990s London rave club, then quoting the New York white preppie-funk of Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a Lifetime’. The Magic Numbers’ Romeo Stodart, an Africa Express regular, passes through too, in a country music mood.

The two female dancers are kicking into high, headstrong gear by now, flirted with and driven on by the talking-drummer, and passing their energy on to the crowd. “I love you!” Amadou says to the dancing fans, but stroking the back of his wife’s head. For this late-blooming couple in their fifties, such nights must bring exhausting satisfaction. It has been a relentlessly exciting show; to a fault at times, never stopping for breath. But the sight and sound of African musicians placing themselves in 21st-century pop’s centre stays invigorating.

© Nick HastedThe Independent, 30 July 2009

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