It’s often forgotten that acclaimed Malian husband and wife duoAmadou & Mariam were happily making music in West African obscurityfor over two decades before finally enjoying crossover success withtheir 2004 breakthrough album, the Manu Chao-produced Dimanchea Bamako. In commercial terms though, it was certainly worth thewait, as the accolades have rarely stopped since and thefiftysomething couple are right up there at the top of the worldmusic tree, a permanent fixture on the European festival circuit andwith leading Western artists falling over themselves to join them onrecord.
The famous friends first started appearing on the 2008 follow up toDimanche a Bamako, the enjoyable but somehow less fresh and exuberantWelcome To Mali, which featured the Somali-Canadian rapperK’Naan and production by the ubiquitous Damon Albarn.On new album Folila though, the trickle has become a flood, withalmost every track boasting a different collaborator. And while it’sstill unmistakeably an Amadou & Mariam record, the roster ofimpressive guests once again does little to develop further what’salready a pretty successful formula.
The tracks on Folila – meaning ‘music’ in the Bambara language –were originally intended to be spread over two records; one acrossover collection recorded in New York City with the likesofSantigold, Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears and TVOn The Radio, the other a more rootsy album recorded in Bamakowith mostly African guests and instruments. Both projects ended uphappening, but when Amadou and Mariam listened back to the twosessions, they opted to take the third way and combine the best ofboth worlds into one seamless whole.
This process isn’t entirely successful, as the two different stylesdo still stand out from one another from time to time, not least onopening track Dougou Badia, featuring some searing guitar from theYeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner and Santigold lending her strident tones to a spirited duet with Mariam. Metemya starts offwith a typically exuberant Afro-funk guitar figure and vocal fromAmadou, but the arrival of Shears’ camp falsetto in the background isa shrill distraction rather than an enhancement to the sound. Incontrast, Nebe Miri fares better; this song could sit comfortably onDimanche a Bamako were it not for Brooklyn rapper TheophilusLondon’s occasional interjections, but these blend effectivelyinto the whole without distracting.
Of the more quintessentially Malian material, the desert blues ofBagnale has many similarities with the work of fellow crossoversuccesses Tinariwen, largely due to the powerful contribution ofTuareg guitarist Abdallah ag Oumbadougou, while Folila closeswith the welcome simplicity of Cherie; just Amadou & Mariam as a duoas of old, chanting softly over some lovely, gently cascading kora andan infectious, shuffling rhythm. In this one song, they prove that theydon’t need the help of others to be at their best; often just beingthemselves is even more compelling.
With their eclectic cocktail ofrock, pop, blues, jazz, soul, funk and traditional African music,these grandparents can still knock out an irresistible groove to matchthe best, but perhaps they need to be reminded that they should do italone a little more often.