Singer Mariam Doumbia and guitarist/vocalist Amadou Bagayoko met more than 30 years ago at the Institute for Young Blind People in Bamako, the capital of Mali, and they’ve been performing as a duo for almost as long. For years, they’ve been stars in West Africa and in France, where they now have a home. But that turned out to be just the start for them. Following the release of their 2005 Nonesuch debut, Dimanche a Bamako, the middle-aged, married pair was embraced by a new, multi-generational audience in the U.S. as well as in the U.K. They were welcomed at indie rock-leaning festivals like Lollapalooza, Coachella and Glastonbury and have been asked to tour with such artists as former Blur front-man Damon Albarn, on his itinerant revue, Afrika Express; the Scissor Sisters, on a series of English dates; and Coldplay, who’ve chosen the couple as the opener for their spring ’09 U.S. dates. Welcome To Mali, the duo’s adventurous new Nonesuch disc, illustrates why.
Amadou & Mariam start with distinctly Malian ingredients: lively call-and-response vocals and blues-based rhythms that can be compellingly trancelike on the slower tracks and irresistibly danceable on the faster ones. From there – and this is where the fun begins – anything goes. Opening track “Sabali,” co-written by and co-produced with long-time champion Albarn, highlights Mariam’s almost otherworldly vocals, layered on top of swirling keyboards and vocoder-altered background voices, as if Abba had been remixed by Gorillaz. On “Africa,” English-speaking rapper K’Naan, a Somalian native now based in Toronto, trades rhymes with Amadou, who sings in French; in the lyrics, the contours of the African continent are re-imagined as the curves of a woman, and K’Naan details his erotic journey around them. “Masiteladi,” a collaboration with the popular Parisian rocker Mathieu Chedid (known in France simply as “M”), features fuzz-toned guitar solos and a propulsive arrangement that could be an alt-rock update of a mid-sixties Yardbirds classic.
“Djuru“ showcases fellow Malian and kora master Toumani Diabate, who punctuates Mariam’s vocals with shimmering, harp-like riffs from his traditional instrument. The title track, with a guest turn from Nigerian guitarist Keziah Jones, is seventies-style blues-funk – think Billy Preston or Stevie Wonder – and that groove become even fiercer and faster on the subsequent “Batoma.” “I follow You (Nia Na Fin),” on the other hand, is unabashedly sentimental pop, a love letter to Mariam, sung by Amadou in English and sweetened with piano and strings.
Welcome To Mali boasts a freewheeling cosmopolitanism. The duo recorded it, with longtime producer and manager Marc-Antoine Moreau, over a 12-month period in Paris, London, Dakar and Senegal. The album reflects the friendships they made, and the collaborations they initiated, during their travels. Amadou remarks, ”Sharing music and ideas with other musicians and finding new ways to express yourself is the most exciting thing you can do as a musician. This album is the result of those meetings and opportunities. It continues what we’ve been doing for a long time, but it’s a development too.”
As Amadou explained to a reporter from the Independent in London, where the album was released in late ’08 to rave reviews, Welcome To Mali is “not just new but different. Before, people used to say we were blues-rock. The new album is much more rock than blues. But the music is still very African, in its inspiration, in its rhythms.” It’s a natural approach for the couple. Amadou says, “The sound of rock, and especially British rock, has always been in our heads. When we were kids in Bamako, we listened to Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. To us it didn’t sound British, it sounded African.”
As a teenage guitarist during the seventies, the gifted Amadou played with the popular West African band, Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako. Mariam, meanwhile, sang at weddings and other traditional Malian festivals. They played their first concert as a duo in 1980 and later moved to Abidjan, capital of the neighboring Ivory Coast, where they began their recording career in 1986. By the late ’90s, the couple was moving regularly between Bamako and Paris, where they signed to Universal and released the albums Sou Ni Ti (1998), Tje ni Mousso (1999) and Wati (2002). Most American listeners discovered Amadou & Mariam via the duo’s 2005 Nonesuch debut, Dimanche a Bamako, produced by the Paris-based world-music provocateur Manu Chao, who himself commands a large states-side following.
With Chao behind the wheel, Dimanche a Bamako was like a fast, bumpy taxi ride straight into the heart of the Malian capital. Cacophonous sounds from the streets mixed in with the spare, skittering rhythms of the songs. It felt thrillingly immediate, like the soundtrack to a jump cut-filled, color-saturated documentary. Dimanche Ã Bamako became a global hit, selling more than 600,000 copies worldwide and garnering Amadou & Mariam numerous honors, including a Grammy nomination; France’s prestigious Victoire de la Musique; and the Album of the Year and Best African Album distinctions in the BBC Radio 3 Awards for World Music. Amadou & Mariam also became the first African artists to make the short list in MOJO magazine’s annual Honours List.
Though less high-concept than its predecessor, Amadou & Mariam’s latest effort is perhaps an even more authentic representation of who they are as songwriters and performers. All the exhilaration and sweat, the vocal interplay and guitar fire, of their live shows make it onto these beckoning tracks. On Welcome To Mali, the widely traveled pair extend an invitation to a place that’s more a state of mind than a spot on a map, and listeners from around the globe may find that it feels a lot like home.