"You love me, I love you, where is the problem?"
Some time ago I read an article by a reviewer who joked that the lyrics to all of Amadou and Mariam’s songs go like this: Amadou: “I love you Mariam.” Mariam: “I love you Amadou.” Amadou: “I love you Mariam.” Mariam: “I love you Amadou…” The song at the forefront of the writer’s mind was probably “Mon Amour, Ma Chérie”, a track from Sou Ni Tile which made the charts in France during 1998. (their homeland, Mali, is a Francophone country, ex-colonial but still connected in certain ways. France often serves as a Malian musician’s first port of call when they want to spread their reach beyond Africa.)
One year after it appeared, Putumayo put “Mon Amour, Ma Chérie” at the start of their Mali to Memphis compilation and I heard it and was smitten. ‘Human’ was the first word that came to me: the song radiated humanity in the best possible way. It was kind and generous and unafraid and the tune was plain and strong. When I discovered that the musicians were a married couple who loved one another it only seemed to strengthen what was already there.
Now they release Dimanche À Bamako and it’s all still in place, the love, the humanity, the directness of genuine feeling, but jumpier and faster than it’s been on any of their intervening albums because this time they’ve got Manu Chao acting as their producer and co-composer. His presence on the packaging is modest (a small blue star on the bottom left-hand corner of the front cover set against the orange-and-white explosion that surrounds the other two) but the music inside is coated with Manu fingerprints. The whirling siren noises and parp-parp beat he’s used on his past releases turn up throughout the album, most blatantly on “La Réalité”, “Taxi Bamako”, and “Sénégal Fast Food”; and the programming credit he gets for some of the songs suggests that he’s responsible for the field recordings of street sounds that periodically underpin the singing.
The collaboration of the tune-based Malian couple with the hectic grab-everything global busker could have been a disaster and yet it isn’t. They suit one another. Amadou and Mariam lend Chao gravity, they give him firm ground to stand on without taking away the giddiness that makes him fun, and in return he adds a sense of sparky urgency to their music.
To hear how well this partnership works, listen to the bit in “La Réalité” when Mariam introduces herself into the song by calling out her name, “Mariam Doumbia!” and a sampled crowd begins cheering. Where another singer might have ruined the moment by sounding arrogant or rock-star-ish, she seems delighted and even faintly hesitant, and although the crowd have been artificially inserted (Chao doesn’t disguise it) they still sound as if they’re happy because she’s happy and here they are, watching her, and isn’t it all wonderful and aren’t human beings wonderful, all of them?
Dimanche À Bamako is filled with that matter-of-fact sense of awe. It comes through in the Malians’ voices, and in the flute that drifts through “La Paix” like an echo of Ian Anderson’s ghost, and through young Mamadou, who is credited with “child vocals” and has a voice oddly like Mariam’s and whose photograph appears inside the case with “Mamadou La Future Star” printed in big generous letters underneath. It comes through in the noisy attention-grabbing songs like “La Réalité” and also in the quieter ones such as “La Fête Au Village” with its low-slung cradle-rock of a beat and some unexpected ethereal humming from Renaud Lacoche’s musical saw. It rises like blood through “Beaux Dimanches”, which is deep and wonderful in ways that go straight through my bones and bury themselves in the marrow. “Beaux Dimanches” gives the album its title: Dimanche À Bamako, Sunday in Bamako. “Sundays in Bamako are wedding days,” runs a translation of the lyrics. “The voices of the griots and the founes resound everywhere… / The men and the women have put on their beautiful boubous / And their beautiful shoes…”
In fairy stories everything is set right when the hero wins the recognition he’s worked for; in France Dimanche À Bamako won a Victoires de la Musique award and went to the top of the charts. It should have the same success everywhere it goes. It deserves it. We deserve it. Lyrics for an imaginary future song? Amadou and Mariam: “We love you Manu Chao.” Manu Chao: “I love you Amadou and Mariam.” All: “We love you, audience.” Audience: “We love you musicians, we love you Dimanche À Bamako. Tu m’aimes,” as the lady says in “M’Bifa Blues”, “je t’aime ou est le problem?”