Live Music + Gig Reviews

Amadou & Mariam @ KOKO, London

25 February 2009

Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia seem, in their 50s, to be on a mission to break down African music stereotypes.

Having already toured with (of all people) Scissor Sisters, the duo set off around the USA with Coldplay this summer.

Tonight is their first London show since the release of second (international) album Welcome To Mali at the tail end of last year and is part of a headline tour playing to sold-out houses in their own right.

It’s a right they’ve well earned. Debut international release Dimanche a Bamako went stratospheric with Manu Chao behind the producer’s desk. The follow-up, which made musicOMH’s Top 50 Albums of 2008, brought in Damon Albarn, Toumani Diabate and a host of upcoming African stars.

With a four-piece backing band and two backing vocalists already on stage, the blind couple sashayed on in designer white and blue (with purple trim) Malian finery and their trademark sunglasses and got straight on with the new album’s title track.

They’d stay more or less rooted to the centre of the stage from then on, Amadou’s golden electric guitar reflecting the lights around the room with his every move, save for when each took a short break. On percussion – was that Baaba Maal, or his long lost twin brother? – insistent drumming augmented the main drum kit, bass and synth.

Between songs we were spoken to in French – and half of KOKO seemed to know enough of the language to respond in kind. English was restricted to Amadou repeatedly asking “Do you feel aaaaaalright?” Whoops responded. Apparently everybody did, and no wonder. By the time Mariam led the audience in clapping along to Batoman, those not already finding new and interesting ways to move their bodies were in a distinct minority.

I Follow U was the first English language song of the evening. By some way the weakest of Welcome To Mali’s tracks, it was given credibility after an extended guitar solo from Amadou as he put an arm around his music partner for the last 30 years. “That’s really sweet,” smiled a girl behind us.

Some magazine or other was holding its “awards” tonight, so Sabali’s co-writer Albarn was busy with old flame Graham Coxon at that rather than playing along with Mariam, as he had at the Barbican’s Africa Now show late last year. Despite Mariam carrying a voice-limiting infection tonight it was still a pace-changing show-stopper.

She leaves the stage after it and Amadou takes over for C’est Ne Pas Bon and really gets into his stride, repeatedly firing guitar solos around the room in a way no British indie band would ever get away with. Coulibaly seems to consist almost entirely of guitar solos, but nobody’s minding – the man’s a virtuoso.

In the encore the percussionist breaks cover to spark off the dancers, who go quite wild in the wings. Gradually they slow it down to Dimanche a Bamako’s title track, controlling their audience’s mood every bit as effectively as a club DJ might. It’s no wonder Scissor Sisters love them; Amadou & Mariam just will not be conveniently pigeonholed. Perhaps that’s why their popularity seems well nigh universal.

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More on Amadou & Mariam
Amadou & Mariam – Folila
Amadou & Mariam and The Beating Wing Orchestra @ Pavilion Theatre, Manchester
Amadou & Mariam @ KOKO, London
Amadou & Mariam – Welcome To Mali