CD: Amadou and Mariam, Welcome to Mali


Amadou and Mariam have become African superstars and, like many super- stars, they now have a problem: what on earth do you do to follow up a major hit record? The blind Malian husband-and-wife team had already been recording for 17 years, crafting their own distinctive blend of gutsy African blues-rock and funk with limited commercial success, when they teamed up with Manu Chao to record the massively commercial Dimanche à Bamako. In the three years since its release, their lives have been transformed. Chao sensibly pulled back, and Amadou and Mariam began to target pop audiences, breaking into the French top 20 and bringing a new western following to African music. They even provided a rousing opening act for the Scissor Sisters.

So what now? Instead of recording a no-nonsense set that reflects their stage show, they have taken a more cautious route, working in Mali, Senegal, France and the UK, and inviting a series of friends to take part. They have succeeded in recording another infectiously rousing set, even if it doesn't have quite as many memorable songs as Dimanche. But they have done so because of their own skills, and despite the often unnecessary extra voices.

One exception is Damon Albarn. He hasn't taken Manu Chao's role in producing an entire album, but he did co-write and produce the opening song, Sabali, on which he plays keyboards and bass. It starts like some vintage recording, featuring strings and the haunting voice of Mariam Doumbia, before developing into an insistent, swirling electro-pop ballad that sounds better here than when Albarn and Mariam attempted it live on stage at the Africa Express shows. But I suspect it won't become part of the duo's stage show. Their distinctive style is based around Amadou's driving guitar work, and he doesn't even make an appearance.

However, Amadou Bagayoko dominates the rest of the album - from the stirring Ce N'Est Pas Bon, on which Albarn provides keyboards, through to Djuru, on which Amadou's guitar is matched against Toumani Diabaté's kora. He also provides a couple of good extended solos, on Masiteladi and Sekebe, and demonstrates his vocal skill in both French and English on two charming, gently funky songs to his wife, Compagnon de la Vie and I Follow You.

All of which leaves the guests sounding redundant. French funk star Juan Rozoff joins Amadou on the laid-back Je Te Kiffe, and the excellent Somali hip hop star K'Naan makes an appearance on Africa, but fails to produce any of his distinctive lyrics. Nigerian Keziah Jones sounds even less happy, joining in a slinky Amadou and Mariam duet on Unissons Nous with a few English cliches about unity and freedom that don't add much. But no matter: this is Amadou and Mariam's album, and their Africa-pop crossover success continues.


Robin Denselow

The GuardianTramp

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