Music

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
Amazon
iTunes

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.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image