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Amadou & Mariam

Welcome to Mali

Rating: 4.0

Label: Nonesuch

buy it at insound!

Before I get into the meat of Amadou & Mariam’s newest album, Welcome to Mali, I want to talk about the first track, “Sabali.” Produced by Damon Albarn, it may very well be one of the most perfect pop songs ever recorded. As the song begins with what sounds like a muezzin’s call to prayer drifting over faded strings, Albarn’s arpeggiated production, complete with spaced-out synthesizers, tinkling squeaks and tightly wound drumming, takes it further into the ether. Next, Mariam’s sweet voice chimes in and “Sabali” just keeps building and building.

Take away the perfection of the opening track and Welcome to Mali is still a damn strong album. Though most of the songs are definitely more earth-bound than “Sabali,” Amadou & Mariam’s latest still contains plenty of surprising and rousing music. Much like the duo’s breakthrough effort Dimanche à Bamako, produced by Manu Chao, Mali brings on more of that feel-good, world rhythm sound that makes both the indie kids and jam band fans glom to Chao’s Pan-European music. It’s no surprise that the duo, who have been making music together since 1976, were able to ride the same wave under Chao’s gentle guidance. Dimanche was a minor hit and Amadou & Mariam found themselves playing major festivals such as Coachella in 2006 and this summer’s Bonnaroo.

On Mali, Chao gives way to producer Marc-Antoine Moreau (minus “Sabali”), who clearly is a proponent of that big studio sound. Amadou’s guitars are chunky and heavy, Mariam’s vocals are scrubbed clean, and each song is heavily textured. Despite this, for those who prefer a DIY aesthetic, the tracks on Mali never sound antiseptic. Moreau knows his way around a studio, unlike Brendan O’Brien, who stole away Bruce Springsteen’s balls somewhere in his last few albums.

As Amadou & Mariam move further away from their blues roots and experiment with other musical tropes (such as the Latin rhythms of the title track and the English lyrics of “I Will Follow You”), their music is becoming more daring and exciting. While much of their sound is rooted in West African blues, it’s the introduction of flourishes like synthesizers, guest vocals by K’Naan, and orchestral strings that propel Mali into Manu Chao’s global village. While Bela Fleck is off learning about the ngoni in his film Thrown Down Your Heart, Amadou & Mariam are getting out of Africa, but never neglecting their roots. The album’s instrumentation is perhaps a nod to this, where the very European piano is utilized with the balafon and calebasse.

Though Welcome to Mali is deserving of a wide audience, it has a long playing time and the bulk of its lyrics are in French, two things that could scare off xenophobic fans with short attention spans. Still summer is on the way and the album, with its chill vibe and dance-friendly rhythms, is perfect for parties and has all the markings of a summer hit. Be forewarned though: your guests may just want to play “Sabali” over and over, neglecting the rest of the record. It’s that good.

by David Harris

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