The West African duo
makes music for the good times, even in bad times.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
Why does the world’s most life-affirming music always come
from the most troubled places? Welcome to Mali (Because Music/Nonesuch),
Amadou & Mariam’s follow-up to 2005 critical favorite, Dimanche a Bamako,
is, on the one hand, pure sensual joy, a raft of infectious-rhythmed,
ebulliently performed funk-rock-desert-electro-dance songs. The poverty, the political corruption, the
personal suffering of two singers who have been blind from birth are present,
but subsumed in a music so generous, so inclusive and celebratory that you
cannot help feeling a wave of optimism.
In a First World funk over wasted
401(k) balances, layoffs, foreclosures and soaring college tuition costs? Amadou & Mariam invite you to a party,
with borrowed chairs, home-made liquor, a ragtag assortment of multi-national
guests and music that goes on all night.
It’s just what you need… really.
Amadou & Mariam have always incorporated lots of
different musical styles and ethnic influences into their West African
aesthetic. Their breakout album Dimanche
a Bamaka featured producer Manu Chao prominently. Musicological purity is not their
thing. So it is, perhaps, not surprising
that Welcome to Mali is not solely – or even especially – Malian. People who have spent the last year listening
to African Scream Contest or Nigeria Rock Special compilations may find the orchestrations a little slick, the cross-cultural
borrowings of reggae, American and African hip hop and IDM jarring. But, with few exceptions, the genre-hopping
works fairly well. This is
African-tinged pop, with the emphasis on pop.
There’s nothing archival or field recorded about it.
“Sabali,” for instance, the opening track and one of two
produced by Damon Albarn, intercuts Mariam’s high, wistful voice with tense new
wave piano chords and glitchy electronics.
Albarn adds a programmed beat to this cut, rather than the live African
drums you might expect, and a series of high, scale-cascading
synthesizers. It’s an interesting
juxtaposition, the ultra-clean, ultra-modern IDM arrangements around an
achingly natural, non-Western voice, but you quickly get beyond
“interesting”. The track works as the
purest kind of electro pop, natural and synthesized, danceable and subtly
Later, on “Djama”, a reworking of a song originally recorded
in 1979, Amadou & Mariam experiment with a back-beated reggae sound, and
“Je Te Kiffe” with guest vocals by Juan Rozoff, shades towards Western indie
rock. The huge, call-and-response
choruses of “I Will Follow You” and the title track are underlined by a full
string quartet, and concert hall piano.
Yet in all cases, these non-African sounds are integrated, enveloped
almost, with the buoyant rhythms, the scintillating funk guitars of West
Western influences pop up everywhere, but there are also
some wonderfully distinctive African touches, too. Toumani Diabate brings his unearthly kora to
“Djuru,” its sharp, reverberating tones somewhere between a harp and a
guitar. In this cut, the shuffling,
hip-shifting beat is all body, the kora untethered spirit. Later, in “Bozos” and the hidden track
“Boula”, Zoumana Téréta plays a rough, evocative “suku” or Malian violin, the
instrument’s low, scraped-out tone adding an additional layer of emotional
depth to the songs. And rapper K’naan,
out of Somalia, comes on
board for “Africa”, a love song to a troubled
continent, imagined as a woman.
Welcome to Mali can be heard as a party, but there
are darker, more politically-engaged undertones scattered throughout the
album. Amadou sings about the tangled
politics of Africa in “C’est N’est Pas Bon,”
and again on “Boula.” “Masiteladi,” an
open-hearted travel song, touches on the long separations from family that
Africans must endure to make money in its cities. Yet even these songs are full of joy,
celebrating survival, friends and music, even in very difficult
circumstances. The worst depression in
history in the west would be a pretty flush year in Mali. Welcome to Mali is for the good times,
even in bad times.