Amadou & Mariam have traveled a long road since their mid-1990s African cassette-only days, or even since their first internationally-released albums. Tje Ni Mousso and Wati wowed listeners with their heady, blues-meets-classic-rock-inflected style of contemporary West African pop (in case that characterization sounds bewildering rather than enlightening, just listen to Wati’s opening track, “Walide”, to see what I’m getting at). Beginning with 2005’s breakout album Dimanche a Bamako, produced by Manu Chao, Amadou & Mariam have grown into bona fide global superstars, headlining rock festivals in the UK and drawing a worldwide audience. Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that their success has translated into the requisite guest-star-heavy, East-meets-West mishmash of musical styles. (See also: Tinariwen’s less than satisfying 2011 album Tassili.) Such collaborations are rarely successful, so one might justifiably approach Folila with a fair dose of apprehension. Fear not, though – the album works brilliantly far more often than not.
The good news kicks off right away, with album opener “Dougou Badia” proving to be an infectiously listenable blend of Amadou’s angular guitar playing, Mariam’s scratchy, heartfelt vocals, and soaring guitar work from Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Nick Zinner. As if this happy surprise weren’t enough, singer/rapper Santigold shows up for duet vocal duties, her honeyed vocal delivery playing nicely off of Mariam’s spitfire rasp. The whole thing is an unlikely amalgamation of disparate pieces that manages to cohere wonderfully. “Dougou Badia” is perhaps the strongest single tune on the record, but there are plenty of further delights to be had. TV on the Radio’s Tunde and Kyp show up to contribute vocals on follow-up tune “Wily Kataso”, while Francophone singer Bertrand Cantat does the same on “Oh Amadou”. Both of these songs are high-energy workouts in both sonic and emotional terms, with “Oh Amadou” especially benefiting from Cantat’s from-the-gut delivery and angsty vocals, which at times resemble Chris Cornell in his Soundgarden prime. He returns for three more songs.
As a whole, the tunes are densely packed, with layers of sound piled one atop the next: guitars and bass, percussion and harmonica, horns and vocals upon vocals. It all creates a satisfyingly dense sonic stew. There are gentler moments to be had, as on the downtempo “Sans Toi”, but those moments are few and far between: there’s a lot going on at any given moment in any given song. Apart from some percussion accents, the instrumentation tends to be electric and modern: if there is much kora here, or balafon, it’s mixed well down into the overall swampiness, or used for occasional spice, as the opening hand drum patter in “Metemya.” Of course, not every strong is equally strong. The aforementioned “Metemya” brings us backing vocals courtesy of Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears, and the disco slickness just doesn’t mesh with the rest. Album closer “Cherie” has Mariam leading a chorus of children, which is a cute idea that borders on the cloying. “Africa Mon Afrique” brings in horns for a tune that tries for epicness but ends up sounding generic.
These missteps hardly matter: there is far more that is excellent than ordinary on Folila, and nothing at all that is less than interesting. If Amadou & Mariam feel they need to release a collaboration-heavy album in order to win over the ears of new listeners, then so be it. Their efforts are far more successful than many of their contemporaries, and they may have just released another international smash crossover success. It’s easy to imagine “Dougou Badia” blasting through the streets of Bamako this summer – as well as London, Chicago, Dakar and Paris. If there is any justice at all in the musical universe, that’s exactly what will happen.