Amadou & Mariam – Welcome To Mali

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Amadou & Mariam – Welcome To Mali (Nonesuch Records; released March 24th, 2009)

This album was released internationally last November- but Nonesuch (a boutique label run by Warner; home to such wide-ranging artists like Wilco, Kronos Quartet, Ry Cooder, The Magnetic Fields, Joni Mitchell, Jon Brion, Philip Glass, etc.) was waiting to see if the buzz would spill over and this album would be able to enjoy as much success as it has in Europe- and it doesn’t hurt to be supporting Coldplay this summer on an eight-show outdoor amphitheater tour. So success is imminent hopes Nonesuch, and I’d say they could bank on it.

Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia are affectionately known as “the blind couple from Mali”, having married some thirty-plus years ago after meeting at Mali’s Institute For The Young Blind- they soon discovered they shared a passion for music; and they’ve been influenced by (as well as influencing) a myriad of artists and genres. From a mix of traditional West African music with rock guitars and Middle Eastern violins, Dogon percussion, Egyptian neys and Colombian trombones flavored with hints of American pop; add some reggae, a dash of hip-hop, some Indian tablas and Cuban trumpets for good measure; it’s truly “world” music- trawling the globe for sounds and incorporating all of them has made them a success story in their native country as well as France, so this is the litmus test for American audiences. They pass with flying colors, by the way…

Once again, I’m writing about an African band and I’d be sorely remiss to not mention globalization- here it’s a good thing. To be exposed to new cultures, get a chance to hear another musical message outside your comfort zone; all the while the free exchange of ideas are firing back and forth throughout the global marketplace via the internet. I took notice of this band a few months ago; thinking “why haven’t I heard of them?”, and through my cable modem I was listening to their tunes via their website in less than ten seconds. If that’s not global connectedness, I don’t know what is.

Geography aside- the music on the record is sparkling and crisp; it bubbles and simmers, it glows red hot and slows down to an icy blue, it shines, it smiles, it dances- in short: it’s a celebration of life, plain and simple. This is happy music, and (as devil’s advocates would ask) what could we be possibly celebrating with all that’s going on in the world? Well, for one- I don’t buy into the dark pessimism that “this world is getting worse”; I teach pre-school, and that’s something I would never say in front of my kids. That sort of lazy indifference is as irresponsible as print journalists blaming the internet for the death of the newspaper; the newspaper died because something better came along and replaced it.

I also don’t buy into that hippy-dippy new age bullshit about the world ending in 2012. Because the Mayans say so? Please. So, to all the naysayers; let’s make life a celebration- now that the world is connected like never before, let’s party. Together. Let Amadou & Mariam‘s Welcome To Mali be the soundtrack to our party.

And what better way to kick off the party with Sabali, the opening track (produced by Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz fame); all done up in easy, spacious electro-pop synths and Mariam in auto-tune vocals, how can you not smile? The first three songs are all Albarn productions, they have a similar quality in that they eschew traditional instruments for more synthetic sounding, studio-made ProTools-ish tracks with heavy bass- which isn’t a bad thing at all to this analog-loving set of ears. Getting further into the album, that’s where it begins to sound like an impromptu music carnival on the streets of Mali’s capital Bamako. Reggae sounds are also all over this record; Djama sounds like late period Bob Marley but sung in a mix of French and native language Bambara and Je Te Kiffe also sports a dub-centric bass line.

Even though most of the album is somewhat indecipherable because of the language barrier, the music is so accessible- it’s so radio friendly it’s a shame America is so closed-minded or else these pop-friendly tunes would have a home on the airwaves. I digress back into the record; Masiteladi is a banger of a track- exactly what I’m talking about when I say “should be on the radio”. Likewise the next track, Africa; heartily supported by the Somali-born, Canadian-raised K’Naan helping out on vocals (sung in English). The general theme of global connectedness couldn’t be more evident here- an album sung in so many different languages, recorded in Mali, Senegal, France and the UK, using several different styles of music, producers, guests- this is the world music event of recent memory (at least as far back as Buena Vista Social Club.)

The next two tracks, Compagnon de La Vie and Unissons Nous, French for (correct me if I’m wrong, please) “life companion” and “our sounds united” are stirring and funky- the former evokes a Stevie Wonder comparison and the latter a dense and layered deep bass excursion with assistance from Nigerian singer Keziah Jones. The touching I Follow You, a duet sung in English has syrupy strings over warm, loving lyrics: “I think of you everytime, everywhere…” I’ve sort of envied non-native English speakers singing in this all-too-verbose language- they say so much more with such an economy of words that we seem to lose when native speakers muddle the meaning with overlong explanations and definitions. Perhaps that’s another hidden theme in the album; (I’m searching too deeply?) we say too much when we really just need to get to the point…

The one-two punch of Batoma and Sekebe end the album on a high note; both are heavy on the groove side, rhythm-driven danceable numbers that will no doubt get the asses out to the dance floor. If there’s one thing this album is definitely not short on, it’s club-ready, hand-clappers like these two final songs.

There’s also plenty of smiles to go around- just looking at the album cover makes me happy; just to know that I live in a world where there’s actually a blind African couple that set their undying love to sound, imploring the world’s ears to listen to them with your hearts, and judge not with your eyes. That’s the beauty in music, my friends…

Tracklisting:

  1. Sabali
  2. Ce n’est pas bon
  3. Magosa
  4. Djama
  5. Djuru
  6. Je te Kiffe (feat. Juan Rozoff)
  7. Masiteladi
  8. Africa (feat. K’Naan)
  9. Compagnon de la vie
  10. Unissons-nous (feat. Keziah Jones)
  11. Bozos
  12. I Follow You
  13. Welcome to Mali
  14. Batoma
  15. Sebeke

Amadou & Mariam