Amadou & Mariam: Welcome to Mali

IF YOU HADN’T EVER HEARD A RECORD by this Malian husband and wife duo, but had only read of their initial meeting at Bamako’s Institut des Jeunes Aveugles in the punk rock year of 1976, and the heart-warming showbiz odyssey that led them to their current exalted status as improbable figureheads of African music’s commercial upsurge, it would be all too easy to think of Amadou & Mariam as a kind of Afropop Peters and Lee. But while the ability to dispense feelgood vibrations from within a doubly reinforced stockade of blindness and domestic felicity has been a feature of their ever-widening allure, it is the spindly irresistibility of their music that is the most important thing about them.

Both the powerhouse blues-rock guitar of Amadou Bagayoko and the sweetly stentorian voice of Mariam Doumbia contain severity as well as gentleness. The potent personal chemistry through which these impulses are resolved places the Malians firmly in the lineage of such charismatic outriders of yin/yang balance as the Carpenters, Sonic Youth and the White Stripes. And such is the inviolate solidity of the duo’s high-tensile core that none of the consequences of the success they’ve enjoyed — not even Amadou suffering the indignity of being called “a fucking geezer” by Damon Albarn in this mag last month — seems to have had the slightest impact on it.

Compare this new album’s most obvious stylistic departure — the opening single ‘Sabali’, in which Albarn’s spookily disembodied production boldly relocates Mariam’s whispered sweet nothings within a musical landscape that somehow evokes both Mercury Rev and Jean Michel Jarre — with the apparently more homespun recordings on the superb 2006 compilation 1990-1995: Le Meilleur Des Annees Maliennes. For all the novelty value of Damon’s wonky electro-pop arpeggios, the earlier work has just as much to offer.

The bridge between these two very different sounds was 2005’s breakthrough Dimanche à Bamako. Say what you like about Manu Chao’s terrible fashion sense, but there’s no denying he did a great job of introducing Amadou & Mariam to a wider audience via the addition of strategic background noise.

And the great thing about this follow-up is the way it builds on that foundation without lapsing into self-consciousness. Amadou & Mariam glide smoothly through gear changes that would strip the teeth of a less well-tuned musical motor: from the garage-rock of ‘Ce N’est Pas Bon’ to the comical disco-drums of ‘Djama’, from ‘Djuru”s solemn kora to the euphoria of ‘Africa”s ‘West Coast/East Coast collaboration’ with Somalian rapper K’Naan.

Talking in last month’s OMM about how much he enjoyed Deep Purple and Led Zep as a teenager, Amadou said “to us it didn’t sound British, it sounded African”. He means this not in some sense of all music being African, but as a reflection of the universal applicability of Ian Gillan or Jimmy Page’s very specific attributes. And that is how Welcome to Mali will be appreciated by an audience of millions: not as “world music”, but as the product of an authentically global pop phenomenon.

© Ben ThompsonThe Observer, 9 November 2008

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