Amadou & Mariam were making music long before their Manu Chao-produced album Dimanche à Bamako catapulted them to international fame, sold over half a million copies in France alone and pitched them up at arenas as the unlikely support act to Scissor Sisters. The trick now: how to follow it?
Welcome To Mali is the answer, and it’s a richly varied showcase of both Mariam Doumbia’s unique vocals and Amadou Bagayoko’s bluesy, guitar-driven sound, both of which sit within a vortex of styles and textures. Nearly all of these are melodic and laden with hooks.
They’re at their most interesting when they strip back the production and keep things simple, and while there are a couple of such moments, Welcome To Mali rarely heads down such spartan roads. Instead a wealth of producers, guest stars and musicians come and go through the record, some leaving more of an impression than others.
Damon Albarn‘s single and opening track Sabali, with Mariam on vocals and the Gorillaz collaboration junkie on keys and bass, is a stark, haunting song. That it sounds decidedly more like Albarn’s work (especially The Good, The Bad And The Queen) than the Malian duo’s is surely attributable to the total absence of Amadou on the track. But he’s back for the equally excellent C’est Ne Pas Bon though, which also features Albarn on keyboards, and thereafter he’s the record’s dominant force.
Je Te Kiffe, featuring funk purveyor Juan Rozoff, is the record’s most Manu Chao moment, suggesting a wish not to throw Dimanche à Bamako’s template for success away completely. Amadou takes lead vocals but the backing could be straight from La Radiolina. Yet other collaborations are less obviously necessary. Somali rapper K’naan pops up with some inconsequential English platitudes, and Toumani Diabaté unleashes his kora on Djuru, though it’s buried deep in the mix.
Magosa, Batoman, Djuru and the riot that is Sebeke – featuring Mariam singing through a vocoder a la Cher – are the slow-burning standouts and, alongside the headline grabbing pair of openers, they serve to put the case that Amadou & Mariam’s crossover pop is as much about dancing as it is about hummable tunes.
Big production bombast in the latter half of the record – especially on Africa, the English-language I Follow You and the title track – could happily be skipped over, but there’s at least half a record here that’s as indispensable as it is likeable.