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Amadou and Mariam

(2 Jun 2009: Park West — Chicago)

Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia, musical ambassadors from Mali, took the stage of Chicago’s Park West in matching golden-orange shimmering costumes resplendent with sequins and filigrees. How apropos that the couple was so warmly attired as their sound would prove to be equally bright and radiant. Their work stood as a welcoming invocation to the power and beauty of Mali’s multitudinous musical heritage.

When last Amadou and Mariam appeared here at the Park West in June of 2006, they were showcasing their breakthrough release Dimanche à Bamako produced by global guru, Manu Chao. Chao’s imprint and Mali’s rising star as the musical hotbed of Afro-pop had turned the heads and ears of a slew of concertgoers and fans formerly bereft of the joys of this infamous blind couple’s decades-long masterful musical output. Nabbed by growing legions of hipster bohos and indie-leaning rockers, Amadou and Mariam have since took their pulsing, infectious Mali rock and dance grooves to festivals like of Glastonbury, Bonnaroo, and Lollapalooza.

So one couldn’t have been surprised by the sea of young teens and twentysomethings be-decked in their skinny jeans and Chuck Taylors bobbing on the dancefloor to the title track of Amadou and Mariam’s latest release, Welcome to Mali. Side by side the couple stood gleaming in their raiment and beaming ocean-wide smiles as they issued a beckoning call to dance. The spine-bending Afro-funk groove was buoyed by Amadou’s ringing guitar licks, while his rich, honeyed baritone voice harmonized with his wife’s bird-like alto casting an instant spell on new fans and seasoned veterans.

Malian guitar styles often engage in a symbiotic relationship with the riffs of American blues. The master guitarist Ali Farka Touré was well-known for his desert blues grooves, and likewise the band of Touareg troubadours, Tinariwen conjure the trance, drone, and twang of the Mississippi delta blues. Amadou certainly is versed in that insinuating hypnotic Malian guitar style as evidenced by his hesitating, halting, and stuttering riffs and runs on “Batoma”. Yet, Amadou’s style and skill transcends global boundaries as he calls to mind rhythm and blues rockers with a stinging, rumbling sound on “Masiteladi”. Here Amadou, with deft and effortless ease seemed to be conjuring the ghosts of Bo Diddley and Link Wray. Or maybe he had Chuck Berry in mind. Either way, Amadou clearly spoke to the crowd with the chiming, ringing notes from his gleaming gold Fender guitar.

In interviews, Amadou and Mariam shy away from calling their output world music. Not wanting to be limited, the couple dub their sound “musique universale”. Live, one can certainly understand. Though the undercurrents of the aforementioned Afro-pop swirl about, one almost forgets that most of the songs are either sung in French or Bambara, the couple’s native tongue. The beats are funky, the grooves slinky and slithery, and the overarching sound one of pure dance music. Simmering and boiling beneath all this are such varied genres as French electro pop, the mad joy of Mancunian rave, a spacey and gauzy Flaming Lips meets Grandaddy psychedelia, and the dead heavy funk of Stevie Wonder.

Stop and take a look and the stage set up, and you will see it includes but a single nod to the percussive tradition of African music and that’s the Djembe. Fret not, as that Djembe player peppers the songs with rapid fire slaps and wallops anchoring the sound with an urgent back beat. Yet, nowhere in sight are traditional African staples—the kora, ngoni, or balafon. Amadou and Mariam’s band is all drum, synthesizer, electric organ, whirring gizmos, and handclaps. Amen to their modernity, for they kick out a delectable bedrock for Amadou and Mariam’s universal groove.

Bagayoko and Doumbia rarely stray from each other’s side for reasons that may seem obvious, but over the course of the set the sight of their proximity becomes a captivating sweetness. Mariam will rub Amadou’s bald head as he smiles, brimming with warmth. While Amadou will in turn lean into his wife as he strums his guitar. The joy they bring to their performance often translates what a language barrier might hinder. Dare to listen to tracks like “Chantez-Chantez” or “Beaux Dimanches” and not be wowed by the sinewy, snaking grooves. Amadou and Mariam left no doubters to the testimony of the pure power of their brand of global groove trekking.

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