Global Beat: Amadou & Mariam
Photo by Benoit Peverelli
When it comes to musical diversity, many people think we’ve got the market cornered here in the States. The musical riches of Mali, however, make an equally compelling case.
Ali Farka Touré, Salif Keita, the Rail Band, Oumou Sangaré, Toumast, Tinariwen—the list of artists is long and illustrious, with a sphere of influence that isn’t just confined to West Africa. Even at its most traditional—such as the kora music of master griots like Sidiki Diabaté and, more recently, his son Toumani—Malian music embraces a range of emotions and flavors that speak to an international audience.
Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia, more familiar to their fans as Amadou & Mariam, are keenly aware of this connection. In fact, it’s a cornerstone of their sound, which owes as much to Western blues and rock as it does to the groove-heavy Bambara roots music that they grew up with in Bamako, Mali’s capital city.
“Malian music is very varied,” Amadou says, his Bambara accent adding a musical lilt to his flawless French. “Each part of the country has its own music, but Mandingo and Bambara are the two main forms. We’re part of the Bambara tradition, which is very connected to blues music. And back in Mali, we used to listen to a lot of rock groups like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and bluesmen like John Lee Hooker. So, for us, it’s always about putting the right musical color on everything we do and surrounding ourselves with the right people to do it.”
Although they’ve been making music together for more than 30 years— they met at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind as both lost their sight when they were young—Amadou & Mariam only hit the world stage in the last decade. Their breakthrough album, Dimanche à Bamako, produced by Manu Chao, merged Latin and reggae rhythms with sleek Afropop. They followed it with 2008’s Welcome to Mali and its synthpop-driven first single “Sabali,” co-produced with Blur’s Damon Albarn.
Their latest Folila extends the crossover thread further into hip-hop and dance-rock territory, and will likely be known as the duo’s New York album, but the earthy sound of Bamako is never far from the mix.
“The album’s title means ‘we came to play,’” Mariam explains. “That’s what we try to do every time, and why we like to play with lots of different musicians. It seemed natural to us to start in New York because it’s a very open and multi-cultural city.”
From there, they brought the raw tracks back to Mali with longtime producer Marc-Antoine Moreau and recorded with more traditional instruments—djembe percussion and Bassekou Kouyate’s stringed ngoni in particular—at first with the intention of making two different albums. But as they went deeper into the music, they realized they had an exciting fusion on their hands. It started with “Wily Kataso,” a slow-cooking Afrofunk number that features Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone from TV on the Radio on supporting vocals.
“We knew Nick Zinner [from Yeah Yeah Yeahs] from a festival we played together, and he introduced us,” Amadou says. “Nick played the wah-wah guitar part, and when the guys from TV on the Radio heard the song, they liked it and wanted to sing on it.” Amadou locks the groove with a jazzy rhythm guitar, while Mariam soars over the top, her voice squeezed through a filter that suggests the raw, unadorned sound of vintage African pop.
It’s one of many unusually symbiotic moments on Folila. Santigold brings soul and attitude to “Dougou Badia,” while Theophilus London channels his Caribbean roots and a Brooklyn hip-hop swagger, rhyming and singing on the head-nodding “Nebe Miri.” With the help of Scissor Sisters’ lead singer Jake Shears, “Metemya” gets a retro dance-funk infusion; its mirror image is politically charged “Africa Mon Afrique,” a Cuban-esque slow rumba with blaring horn lines and French multi-instrumentalist Bertrand Cantat on guitar and co-lead vocals.
It isn’t easy to manage so many different voices and influences and come up with a seamless whole, but for Amadou & Mariam, because they’re so attuned to sound and all its nuances, an album like Folila is a journey of discovery more than anything else.
“We like working with new people each time we do an album,” says Amadou. “There’s never any plan involved. We don’t have a specific idea about our next collaboration either, but we’ve been playing gigs with U2 and Coldplay, and we’d love to work with them one day too because we really like their music. But it’s been this way for us from the beginning. We’ve kept ourselves open to trying new things just to see what happens.”
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