Amadou and Mariam: Welcome to Mali

If Amadou and Mariam's last album felt like a shift in the couple's career, then Welcome to Mali feels like an even greater one.

Amadou and Mariam

Welcome to Mali

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2009-03-24
UK Release Date: 2008-11-17
Internet release date: 2008-11-17

If Amadou and Mariam's last album felt like a shift in the couple's career then Welcome to Mali feels like an even greater one. Someone who was disappointed by Dimanche à Bamako might have consoled herself by thinking that the album was a one-off, an aberration, a fling with Manu Chao that didn't need to be repeated. "They'll be back to normal after this," that person might have said. "No more Chao, no more experiments."

Then Welcome to Mali arrives and the person is stricken with horror. She writes angry letters to Nonesuch. She makes funeral pyres out of Wati. She tears her hair. She weeps. Her idols have collaborated madly again. Not with one person this time, but two, three, four, five. Damon Albarn! Rappers! The old Amadou and Mariam songcraft is there, but nearly everything on top of it is different. She decides that Dimanche à Bamako was not so bad after all. "At least there they only went in one new direction," she says. "Here they change all the time."

And I think: Well, why not? Let them change.

Which invites the retort: Fine, but why should we pay for it?

Welcome to Mali is something more than an experiment, and something less than a fully satisfying and coherent album. It has strengths and weaknesses. It is not entirely strong and not entirely weak. It is not entirely anything. The strength, as always, lies in the couple's songwriting aptitude. If there is such a thing as a catchy-melody gene, then they were both born with it. They've been husband and wife for decades, their children are grown, but as soon as they stand in front of a microphone, then they're young, happy, married just this afternoon, and fizzy with love. That hasn't changed.

The opening song, "Sabali", is the one they made with Albarn. Mariam sings, "Sabali, sabali", her voice squeezed artificially up to a bat-squeak register, while a keyboard rolls and a drum machine goes pat-a-pat. Here are their trademarks: the melody that is simple yet affecting, the lyrics that are heartfelt yet banal, the mixture so apparently natural and unmeditated that it teeters on the brink of being too basic, too much like a nursery rhyme. "Sabali" had the effect on me of a super-sour sweet: pleasurable without being pleasant, a taste that I want to keep putting in my mouth even though I can't quite explain why I want it there.

The album goes on. There are love songs. Amadou sings one of them in English, which turns out to be a mistake since banalities sound handsomer in French, the Malians’ default European language and the one they usually use in their lyrics. The kindest thing you can say about this is that he's not alone. When the Canadian-Somalian rapper K'naan arrives to guest star on "Africa", he invites Africa to go "up and down and round and round" until he stops sounding like a man paying tribute to a continent he loves and starts sounding like a grubby drunk trying to glom onto the nearest waitress before she throws him out.

We're better off with the shuffling funk jog of "Djuru", the trumpet-swing of "Compagnon de la Vie", and with "Bozos", in which the dry rasp of a ritti matches the same noise in the couple's voices. The piano and violin that arrive during Amadou's English-language song are awkward but interesting. This track is not the right place for them, but there's no reason why this dabble with classical Western music shouldn't be pushed farther in the future. The same goes for a lot of the things on Welcome to Mali. The album has the feel of a toe being dipped in the water.

Back in the 1990s, Amadou & Mariam launched themselves on a course of solid Mali-blues, pushing new things with each album, eventually planting themselves firmly and plateauing in goodness. Now they seem to be looking for ways to incorporate Western electronic pop -- not the very mainstream, thrusting kind, but the offbeat sort that bubbles around the edges of things and attracts loving audiences on blogs runs by people who pride themselves on their ability to discover the unexpected. In the future, Welcome to Mali might look to us the way their 1998 Sou Ni Tile does now: A step on a journey, but not the end of it.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.