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Amadou & Mariam - Welcome to Mali

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Artist: Amadou & Mariam

Album: Welcome to Mali

Label: Nonesuch

Review date: Mar. 17, 2009

It’s hard to go wrong with Amadou and Mariam. Mali’s most accessible musical export has it all: a unique sound, musical craftsmanship, a sense of adventure and a great backstory. The duo of Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia met at the Institute for Young Blind People in Bamako, fell in love, and have been making sweet, catchy music ever since. Their journey is the stuff of legends. Moreover, their vocal- and guitar-based music doesn’t try too hard, and their earnest efforts to craft a truly international sound has met with resounding success since their previous album, 2005’s hit Dimanche à Bamako.

Produced by Manu Chao, Dimanche à Bamako propelled Amadou and Mariam into a lofty and well-deserved international orbit by way of a sound that ventured into experimental and atmospheric production. In fact, many regarded it as a Manu Chao record starring the "blind couple from Mali." Nonetheless, Amadou and Mariam became celebrities, breaking free of some of the music industry’s most enduring and nefarious confines as their music seemed to finally herald a new era beyond narrow niches of African or World music. If you love Amadou and Mariam – and you probably will – you owe a retroactive debt of gratitude to Manu Chao, even if you don’t love his approach.

Now, it should be made clear that Amadou and Mariam make pop music. They’re open to a wide range of ideas and sounds, and they collaborate with an equally wide range of artists and producers, but their music contains no ambitions (read: pretensions?) about treading the cutting edge. If your tastes run to the extremes, you may not fall head over heels for them … but Amadou and Mariam are not likely to rub you – or anybody else – the wrong way.

Perhaps that’s why the release of Welcome to Mali has been met with an enthusiasm reserved for proper pop stars. The title is misleading, since the tracks contain relatively few explicit sonic references to Mali. It’s not quite musical Esperanto - in fact, it sounds a lot like Paris - but the 15 songs here are definitely radio-friendly and fit for the masses. There’s the occasional saccharine moment, but the music itself is mostly just plain sweet.

There are few open spaces on Welcome – it’s up-front, busy and dense. The production by long-time, Paris-based collaborators Marc-Antoine Moreau and Lauren Jais weaves a tight fabric based mostly on the drums-bass-guitar-keyboard concept. Guest appearances by K’naan, Keziah Jones, Toumani Diabate, Tiken Jah, and others provide threads of hip-hop, reggae, indie rock and Mandé music. Although the grooves swing and shuffle in different ways (a few songs work as half-time or double-time at once), almost every track features a snare drum sound on the second and fourth beats, as if the backbeat is a common language tying it all together. The most unusual track is the opener, "Sabali," produced by Damon Albarn. It stands out in every way: a spare and clever electronic affair that leaves room for Mariam’s voice to connect directly with the listener.

Regardless of the frames built around them by producers or the press, Amadou and Mariam make great pop music, and their new album gives us more of it. This is probably not the album many neo-traditionalists had in mind – it’s more conventional, glossier, and less idiosyncratic – but Mali retains the charm that has always made this duo more than just a great story.

By David Font-Navarrete

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