Amadou & Mariam
Dimanche a Bamako
ithout any frivolous utopian jizzing or postcolonial pandering, the blind Malian couple Amadou & Mariam makes a noise so joyously impure that it’d never fit in any one place, which is why it could fit basically anywhere. America and Europe seem to still prefer relegating “world music” to specialty markets (i.e. unpopular on a grand scale) or keeping it strictly penned in (i.e. reggaeton as “new Latin dance craze” rather than integrated style), while African pop stars have long folded in elements of American R&B, rock, blues, and non-African pop music seemingly out of interest and devotion rather than attempts at assimilation. When the royal we seriously flirts with the idea of blends it always gets cast as “freaky,” like the art-starched Afro-disco of Talking Heads, some idyllic and wild border-blurring jigsaw (at worst, dilettantes who held funk with tongs). We’re still sweating the cultural blending thing, send more Buena Vista Social Club, with its undeniable beauty yet still vaguely anthropological approach.
Dimanche a Bamako feels like an album of overwhelming place, but nowhere specific: sunrises, dancehalls, markets, crowded streets. Part of it must stem from the group’s history, beginning in the early 80’s. After moving back and forth between Mali and Ivory Coast and releasing several cassettes throughout the 80’s and 90’s (some of which is collected on Se Te Djon Ye), the couple recorded Sou Ni Tilé, their first proper European CD in France in 1997. That album catapulted them onto the weird stage of international presence. Not “pop stars” proper, the band began to play to interested audiences outside of Africa and France on that strange aforementioned stage—“world” music as kept distinctly separate from the rest of the musical climate, but of some surging parallel-dimension popularity.
The album, which earned them a Les Victoires de la Musique award (the French equivalent of a Grammy), was recorded in Paris during late 2004 under the jamboree indulgences of French-Spanish Manu Chao. Some tracks are essentially, riffing on the bouillabaisse skank of Chao’s fusion-pop. Though Amadou & Mariam’s previous efforts had a similar aural tack, Chao seems like a good match as a producer, offering a distinctly anti-retro clarity. The group’s hot, brittle funk’s syncopated topography is smoothed by milky phasers and compression work, and the more tender moments are often bolstered by lilting atmospheres, bits of conversation and drifting keyboard swathes.
What shines on Dimanche a Bamako is a kind of unpretentious integrationist spirit and optimism, a sense of stylistic fluidity and drift that is impressive without sounding forced. Amadou’s guitar overdubbing is particularly insightful, towing a line of rhythmic dynamicism somewhere between Television and King Sunny Ade, and while Mariam’s flat, earthy voice is hardly diva territory, it lends the music an honesty and grittiness the production can sometimes obscure.
Dimanche a Bamako occasionally finds significant strength in its diversity; tracks that freshen the mood in context can sound slightly duller when standing alone. On the whole though, it should be one of those albums that encourages an open mind because it has one, rather than dismissed as interest only to cool professor types or proprietors of organic farms. If you’ve never delved into Afro-pop, Dimanche a Bamako is hardly a purebred specimen, but it kind of doesn’t matter—the rootless drift in style and mood is what makes it distinct and remarkable; “world” indeed.