Album Remarks & Appraisals:
Amadou and Mariam are a middle-aged blind couple from Mali who have been singing and playing together since the 1970s, when they met at a school for the blind in Bamako. For years, they have enjoyed modest success, with Amadou playing guitar alongside Salif Keita in Les Ambassadeurs, and the couple's own R&B fusion albums notching up moderate sales in France as well as Africa. But they were hardly celebrities. Suddenly, all that has changed. Manu Chao heard them and was so impressed that he offered to produce, co-write and even perform on their latest album, Dimanche à Bamako. The album is a slice of Afro-pop heaven, stippled with Chao's stylistic fingerprints (street noises, wailing sirens, reggae-lite, sonic trickery). Nonesuch. 2005.
"While traditional West African instruments and styles continue to attract attention from abroad, the area's greatest promise for international exposure and outright global accessibility probably lies in various fusions with Western pop. Amadou and Mariam, a blind Malian couple who are now on their fourth album, have recognized this for some time and explored various hybrids between Malian music and blues, rock, and Afro-Caribbean styles, to name a few. The couple may already be well-known in France, but Dimanche A Bamako ("Sunday in Bamako") is going to be their international breakthrough. Mark my words.
The curious genre-blending jams on the record were shepherded by the inventive French/Spanish producer Manu Chao, who shares the writing credits on several songs. Chao introduces samples and ambient textures (children playing, street noises) to shadow foreground elements, giving them a real-life context and emphasizing the fact that this is hands-on music made by real people. The ever-shifting riffs, rhythms, and hooks in the music reflect a creative mind at play (in the child-like sense).
Mariam's fragile, floating voice is the most obviously Malian feature of the record, but it's placed in an interactive setting with her partner, with whom she exchanges brief lyrical phrases and occasionally joins for unison emphasis. All this atop a background of guitars, drums, keyboards, and percussion that synergize and reinforce the pop hooks that form the core of each song. The opening "M' Bifé" is a paced, swaying meditation that proceeds seamlessly into an instrumental sequel, "M' Bife Balafon," which goes electric and features riffing on the balafon, a West African xylophone-like instrument, then closes with sharp pattering of drums.
The "hit" of the record, to the extent that one of these attractive songs can be singled out, is "Coulibaly," which weaves call and response vocals atop a funky club groove with thick layers of texture. It's a call to corporal movement that limber listeners will probably find hard to defy, just like the explicit exhortations to "dance together!" on the following song, also club-oriented.
Only one of these tracks (the dreamy closer) crosses the five-minute mark, which is just one hint that they're tailor made for airplay and hitmakers worldwide. Raw north Malian blues, sweet Manding-flavored ballads, snatches of chanson, various American and European pop styles, and rootsy acoustic playing fill out the rest of these fifteen tracks. The buttery swing of "Taxi Bamako," which juxtaposes male vocals with baritone saxophone counterpoint, supplies nearly four minutes of unprecedented groove.
Rather than pushing the limits through postmodern experimentation, Dimanche A Bamako aims to fold styles and instruments together into an accessible, friendly, life-affirming whole. But each song has its own angle, and Chao's offbeat production accents help keep the collection fresh and ebullient. And great fun, start to finish, that just about anyone can enjoy." -AllAboutJazz
Spin (p.61) - Ranked #33 in Spin's "40 Best Albums Of 2005" - "Keening voices cling to West African roots against the drift of Chao's skittish lite-reggae lilt."
Uncut (p.105) - 3 stars out of 5 - "Manu Chao, here helps them paint their Malian pop in global colours..."
Dirty Linen (p.58) - "[L]ush, multi-facetted....[They] have a well-developed pop sensibility..."
Mojo (Publisher) (p.58) - Ranked #9 in Mojo's "The 50 Best Albums Of 2005" - "Amadou & Mariam mixed Malian rhythms and Memphis grooves. And crossed right over."
Mojo (Publisher) (p.104) - 4 stars out of 5 - "African Mod soul house funk album of the year so far."
Amadou & Mariam: Amadou Bagayoko (vocals, guitar); Mariam Doumbia (vocals).
Personnel: Manu Chao (vocals, guitar, programming); Tiken Jah Fakoly (vocals); Roy Paci (trumpet); François Regis Matuszenski (keyboards); Laurent Griffon (bass guitar).
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