Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia, a blind married couple whose life story is as remarkable as its music, have long been stars in West Africa. They draw the musical traditions of their natice Mali and the neighboring Ivory Coast, while also embracing the Latin American salsa, Cuban son, reggae, American R&B, and English blues-rock that they discovered via long-distance broadcasts. Dimanche a Bamako, cut in both Paris and Bamako should instantly appeal to fans of Chao's easygoing, dance-oriented, multiethnic mix, as to admirers of Mailan stars Rokia Traore and Ali Farka Toure.
Review by Chris Nickson
Amadou & Mariam, the blind couple from Mali, have certainly paid their dues over the last 30 years, and it's about time they received their big break. Certainly given the excellent reviews in Europe, Dimanche a Bamako could be it, thanks to the production and participation by the elf prince of world music, Manu Chao. He brings a playful lightness to their soulful, bluesy Malian sound, letting in plenty of sunshine, and drawing in a sense of place through the ambience of traffic sounds and snippets of conversation. Chao is also obviously present on several tracks, such as "Senegal Fast Food," which offers a bouncy, reggae-styled rhythm so typical of Chao's own records. But even when not so obviously asserting himself, his presence is felt in the space he creates, and the use he makes of Mariam's admittedly limited voice (she's good, but no one will ever mistake her for one of the word's greatest singers), as on "Beau Dimanche," for example. Lyrically, this is very much an album of love songs, postcards between the couple, but it never veers into maudlin sentiment. Yet there's also a political edge to it, such as with "La Realite." Even if you don't understand the words, however, the entire disc is an absolute aural joy, poppy enough to be exquisitely memorable, yet with layers of resonance underneath. Likely to be one of the world music albums of 2005, it can hopefully find the kind of wide audience it surely deserves.
Hollywood doesn't make movies as good as the life story of Amadou & Mariam. Their musical careers stretch back decades-- Amadou Bagayoko played guitar for the legendary Ambassadeurs du Motel de Bamako beginning in the late 1960s. At Bamako's Institute for Young Blind People, Bagoyoko met Mariam Doumbia, and the pair forged two parallel partnerships, one in marriage and the other in music. Their parents approved of neither. They began their recording career in the 1980s the way so many other African artists have-- traveling hundreds of miles to Abidjan in Cote D'Ivoire, which until recently was one of the cultural and economic centers of Francophone West Africa, to make cassettes and perform. Within a decade, they were playing in Europe and cutting all kinds of new influences into their sound, from Cuban son and horn-spiked funk to reggae and Delta blues, and Western labels were giving them the compilation treatment. Now, with Dimanche à Bamako, the blind couple from Mali seems well-poised to make a huge splash, though it's likely that the mainstream attention they get in the rest of the world will far outpace what they get in the U.S.
For Dimanche, the duo and their backing band brought in Manu Chao, a world music superstar famous just about everywhere outside of the United States, and the dividend is a varied, bright, and charming album. While Chao's beat-conscious eclecticism makes this Amadou & Mariam's most accessible album (to Western ears, that is), it also comes at the expense of some of the organic directness of their past records. Still, that's more than made up for by the incredible style salad they've dreamed up, one which Chao's airy production and love of field recordings holds together quite well.
In fact, you might hear something like this album driving through the streets of Bamako with the windows open, the way snatches of street noise, sirens, and voices drift through. Both Amadou & Mariam sing (Chao's voice is everywhere as well), and they're both restrained, smooth vocalists, especially compared to some of Mali's biggest stars, Salif Keita and Mory Kante. As such, this probably makes them more suited to chunky r&b; and Western pop than their countrymen, and indeed, were it sung in English, Amadou's thrilling descending chorus on "Politic Amagni" sounds like something you might hear blasting from a car at an American stoplight.
As pleasing as his voice is, Amadou's real talent is reserved for the guitar, an instrument he plays with supple, liquid skill. He reels off roiling lines and droning desert blues with graceful dexterity, reflecting influences as wide-ranging as Bembeya Jazz's Sekou Diabate, Robert Johnson, and Saharan guitar and oud music. Opener "M'bife" proceeds in two parts, the first being the proper song, featuring Mariam's starkly unadorned voice over male harmonies, percussion and strummed guitar; the second is a buoyant, thumping instrumental that intertwines rhythmic guitar interplay with tumbling balafon, a West African marimba with a slightly sharper sound than the marimbas we're used to.
Single "Coulibaly" layers male/female harmonies and bluesy guitar licks over a dense foundation of swirling rhythm guitars and clattering percussion, while "La Realite" brims with siren samples and off-beat organ. "La Fete au Vilage" sounds ancient by comparison with its modal guitar and traded verses, though granted it's unlikely that tablas could have made it into the background of a Malian folk song prior to the last few decades. Mariam flirts briefly with rap on "Camions Sauvages", coming halfway between it and Indian rhythm exercises, and the track highlights how important raw kinetic energy is to the album with an insistent beat framed by Amadou's slow, surf-y strumming.
The album spends a full hour swinging from strength to strength, and by the time it's over, it's clear that it would be a crime if it didn't rocket Amadou & Mariam straight to stardom. It's a shame that in the U.S. it's likely to be smooshed into the world music ghetto, because it demonstrates as well as any recent release just how meaningless the world music tag is-- if anything, it proves that music is perfectly capable of wandering right past borders and across oceans and teaching us that for all of our perceived differences, our cultures and art are compatible. Amadou & Mariam clearly see no boundaries.
— Joe Tangari, September 29, 2005