It’s a shameful fact that I came across Malian duo Amadou & Mariam’s entrancing 2005 album, Dimanche à Bamako, well into 2006, too late to include it in my “best albums” list. While the album was produced with a professional sheen by Manu Chao, it still maintained a direct line to traditional Malian sounds while expanding into more complex musical and lyrical territory. Sure, with Chao’s help, Bamako achieved international acclaim, but one can hope that it was the album’s emotional purity that resonated with listeners worldwide. The duo’s new album is called Welcome to Mali, but oddly enough, it finds them moving even further afield.
Album opener and first single “Sabali” (“Wisdom”) was produced by Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz fame, and it’s superb, a strange mashup of Gorillaz’ “Feel Good Inc.” with the rising-and-falling computerized tones and melancholy feel of Grandaddy’s “The Crystal Lake.” It’s a fascinating, retro-futuristic re-interpretation of chiming Afropop, with brief lo-fi transmissions from the past laid over the top.
Thankfully, actual guitars reappear by track 2, “Ce n’est pas bon,” with a large chorus joining in to sing the refrain, and fans of Dimanche à Bamako will appreciate the stomping beat and complex melodies of “Magossa.” But what’s amazing is how the duo manage to put their own stamp on an eclectic array of styles, whether it’s the delicate piano-opened ballad of “I Follow You” (sung in English) or the swaying reggae of “Djama.” Guitarist Amadou Bagayoko even sounds a little bit like Johnny Marr on “Djuru,” whose opening strums evoke The Smiths’ “What Difference Does It Make.”
Oddly enough, the Smiths connection isn’t really so strange, since it’s minor chords that unite much of Amadou & Mariam’s work, no matter what genre they’re exploring. Yet there’s an unfettered exhilaration that comes from listening to Mali, the same sort of expansive vertigo I got from M.I.A.’s Kala: a sense that “world music” is now profoundly decentralized, no longer “culture behind glass.” It turns out the title may mean the opposite of its first impression—rather than Mali welcoming tourists to its exotic sounds, this is an album that welcomes Mali to the world.
Amadou & Mariam’s Welcome to Mali is out on Because Music in the UK but doesn’t come out in the US until December 16th.