There are many things to love about Amadou & Mariam, but perhaps their best quality is how they leverage their notoriety to improve their music.
While some may pine for the blind Malian duo’s earlier, rawer form of West African blues, the success of their 1998 single, “Je Pense à Toi”, in France, catapulted them to a level of crossover success rarely seen by Malian artists. After all, it was a tabla-driven guitar number dripping with romantic honorifics, with Amadou Bagayoko singing and playing guitars while Mariam Doumbia wailed with her beautifully-weathered pipes. Then, Manu Chao gave their 2005 record, Dimanche à Bamako, a Euro-reggae lilt that expanded their sound Westward. It endeared the couple to the NPR-literati and netted them their first of three eventual Best World Music Album Grammy nominations (none of which they won). Heck, they even opened for U2.
Yet all of this is a mere pretext for the grand statement that is Amadou & Mariam’s 2012 LP, Folila. In Bambara, “folila” means music, and the resulting album is a surprising and arguably unexpected celebration of the form. It is a record that doesn’t feel trapped in time but instead trapped in context. It was conceived as a double album, with the same set of songs being cut in New York City (with the hottest indie rockers of the era) and the pair’s native Malian backing band in Bamako. They were to unleash both batches of recordings simultaneously, allowing them to stay true to their roots while also welcoming a whole new audience to their sound.
However, the duo weren’t fully satisfied with the outcome of either set. Luckily, though, they recorded each session in the same key and tempo, so they could take the recordings to Paris and merge them. The result is a wild conceit that gives Folila an edge and accessibility different from the rest of their catalog. That said, Folila remains shrouded in controversy a decade after its release. Some viewed it as a deliberate move into a pop realm, with The Guardian‘s Neil Spencer noting that the tracks without any guests “shine enchantingly” compared to the collaborations.
Even more severe, many have taken significant issue with the presence of French rocker—and former Noir Desir frontman—Bertrand Cantat. In 2003, Cantat was convicted of murdering his girlfriend, Marie Trintignant. Ultimately, he served four years of an eight-year prison sentence before being released on parole for good behavior (per French law). Not only does he appear four separate times on Folila, but one of those tunes, “Oh Amadou”, was released as a single. Cantat’s post-conviction career has been met with many protests and pulled performance spots, and there’s no way that Amadou & Mariam weren’t aware of his actions. Whether they were willing to grace someone with a second chance or had a pre-existing relationship with Cantat is unclear, as they have seemingly never commented on it directly. Thus, his inclusion is enough for some fans not to give Folila even a single spin.
Divisive reviews might’ve doomed any other album, but even with Cantat’s barely-distinguishable presence, Amadou & Mariam’s music was always about more than easy singles or winning the favor of certain circles. A certain degree of humanity has always blessed their compositions. Even when rooted in traditional Malian guitar music, it is astounding how well their sound blends with their litany of “hip” collaborators.
Folila is the group’s most consistent album experience end-to-end, as it features their most propulsive, engaging, and downright fun collection of tracks. While some say that the guests distract from the duo’s songwriting brilliance, anyone who’s spent considerable time with Folila knows that the opposite is true. Rather than steal the focus from the Malian group, everyone involved adds to Amadou & Mariam’s sound with absolute fawning reverence. A buy-in to this record infuses every moment with a flavor and energy that enhances everything we’ve always loved about “The Magic Couple”.
Folila opens with “Dougou Badia”, wherein Bagayoko’s legendarily dry guitar lines build to a powerfully amplified chorus. It’s a rocker, as several pieces on this album are, but one that’s sun-baked and pleasant instead of straggling and aggressive. While American singer-songwriter Santigold adds to the chorus, she’s genuinely there to add texture. Likewise, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner adds his guitar tones but is smart enough to not get in the way of Babayoko’s reliably dexterous fretwork.
“Wily Kataso”, a single about a village smartass who can’t keep his mouth shut, is a mid-tempo stunner with arguably the record’s best chorus. TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe—both fresh off their contributions to Tinariwen’s excellent 2011 LP, Tassili—serve as excellent narrators. They help make it perhaps the most feel-good tell-off in music history by bending their voices to the track.
The cool that Folila exudes is different from previous records—such as those that featured collaborations with Damon Albarn and Somalian rapper K’naan—because the cool of Folila isn’t borrowed; it’s earned. Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters fame may seem like an odd guest for the dusty guitar sounds of Amadou & Mariam, but his contribution to the break of “Metemya” is lovingly unobtrusive at most. Later, the joyful, bopping pop-rock goof of “C’est Pas Facile Pour Les Aigles” (“It’s Not Easy for Eagles”) has Doumbia trading verses with English Afro-electronic artist Ebony Bones to surprisingly lively effect. Their rollicking push-back of casual racism (“Don’t like my kind? / Go tell Immigration!”) perfectly encapsulates Folila‘s happy-go-lucky vibe.
As easy as it is to want to nick the album for having too many talented cooks in the kitchen, the crowed-table aesthetic works in Amadou & Mariam’s favor. Folila feels more like a party than even their 2017 dance collection, La Confusion. Even when the tone shifts on the harmonica-driven lament, “Sans Toi”, or the saccharine children’s choir-driven closer, “Chérie”, the transitions feel natural. Combining the two sets of recording sessions makes it nigh-impossible to figure out what was taped. Honestly, the result feels astoundingly organic, as if the duo and long-time production partner Marc-Antoine Moreau planned it that way all along.
This quality is why Folila‘s seemingly tossed-off legacy has always felt strange to me. There’s always varying amounts of joy across Amadou & Mariam’s discography, but their revelry never sounded so grounded as it does here. Manu Chao and drum machines may have taken their aesthetic to new places, but Folila is their most organic-sounding set of songs, straightforward as they may be. The many guests they invited weren’t picked to snag blog notices but rather because they felt like genuine fits. That’s why everyone on the LP sounds happy to be there and contribute their joy to the proceedings. A decade after its release, Folila is arguably more vital-sounding than ever.
“When you get to a certain level, and you’re able to make people happy, you must do so,” declared Bagayoko in a 2012 pre-release interview with The Guardian. “Sometimes some new cause comes up and time constraints make it impossible to commit to it, but in our hearts, we are always ready to share and to help, and give a voice to messages that can change things in this world.”
Although Folila intended to bridge the gap between two sonic worlds, the outcome was even better than expected because the world is better for having Folila in it.