Monday, October 20, 2008

Amadou and Mariam: Welcome to Mali.

Prior to the release of the genre defining Dimanche à Bamako the wonderful people at Because Music took me over to Paris to see Amadou & Mariam debut the album with a concert at La Cigale. Appearing with them that night was the album’s producer, Manu Chao.

What struck me, and my brother-in-law who is a Parisian music journalist, was that the audience was comprised mainly of extremely hip young things. Quite possibly this was because Manu’s appearance had been flagged up in the media prior to the gig and this scion of French music is the biggest draw there is, but the fact remained that the audience loved and understood the whole thrust of the music; and what wasn’t there to love?

Amadou plays guitar like a cross between Carlos Santana and John Lee Hooker. His sense of dynamics is in a field of its own. Add to this the vocal inflections of his wife, Mariam, with a tonal quality that seems to move from Arabic scale to Western scale with ease, depending on what she feels would best suit that part of the song, and you have a recipe for a music that defies pigeonholing.

Now when Manu Chao came to produce this album he didn’t approach it as a Westerner with an almost reverential, but patronising, view to African music; he approached it as a musician, as someone who makes genre defying music himself. He rolled in several of the techniques he uses on his own albums and in doing so he created the most successful album ever by an African artist. Some mariachi horns here, some spun in samples there, it didn’t matter as long as the overall effect was enhanced and expectations surpassed.

Now many “World Music” purists were unsure of all this. I remember one major figure in the UK world music scene telling me that he wasn’t that sure of the album that somehow it didn’t ring true; it was too produced. I argued why shouldn’t it be? What stops African musicians from being allowed to embrace the same techniques and technologies as any other musician in the world? It seems to me to be some weird kind of reverse prejudice.

As a body of work Dimanche à Bamako was easily the best album released in 2005 and Amadou and Mariam went on to achieve sales and exposure comparable with a successful Western act, as well as winning several prestigious awards. Now they have a new album coming out, Welcome to Mali, and I bet you can hear a big “BUT” coming down the road.

The album kicks off with the Damon Albarn produced Sabali. My initial thought, and I do mean initial – like the first 40 seconds or so – was, hey this is happening, this is good. But then it goes all Phil Oakey, all Never Ending Story; in fact it doesn’t really go anywhere. It seems as if Albarn had a spare fifteen minutes and a backing track left over from some other side project and decided to bestow his munificence upon them.

Now this is really disappointing for two reasons: one, Damon Albarn is one of the most consistently creative forces working in music today and he should have done better, as evidenced by the second track Ce N’est Pas Bon, that was recorded merely with his participation; and two, Amadou and Mariam deserve better.

I say that not from the position that most of the journalists who write about them seem to always take, namely that they are both blind and oh isn’t it amazing how the dear things have achieved so much; that information is of public record, it seems to have been the only topic pursued by lazy writers since they broke through in 2005. Let’s move on shall we? These two musicians have done far more in their lives than merely been blind, they have achieved more than the majority of musicians who try to make a living in the music industry regardless of race, continent or disability.

Amadou and Mariam deserve better because they are a huge talent. They are the money!

So onto the rest of the album. Magosa, Djama and Djuru are solidly in their magic territory. The rhythms and melodies intertwine, organ lines bubble up and disappear showing Amadou’s love of 60s r ’n b and its textures. The chops are loose and liquid, they move you viscerally as if your kidneys, liver and spleen feel the need to acknowledge the groove. Then we start the various “guest” appearances. A couple of them work because the guest doesn’t really get in the way, like Juan Rozoff and ~M~. A couple of producers and dance artists who add a little club magic to the mix but not in a way that has a cluttering effect.

Then we have K’naan and Keziah Jones. Frankly these are embarrassing. K’naan showed loads of promise early in his career but his ineffective copying of an out dated US rap vocabulary on Africa makes his contribution clumsy and sad. Keziah Jones brings little to the party. If that all sounds a little harsh then so be it. But wait until I get on to I Follow You.

Now if I decided to make an album of German tunes I’m sure I would sound ridiculous. The language doesn’t come easily to me and anyway I don’t need to prove anything. The same goes for Amadou singing in English. Here’s a guy who can probably speak several more languages than I will ever get round to learning but, given his French accent, singing in English was not a smart move. I mean we laughed at Maurice Chevalier and Johnny Hallyday for christsakes! Also the lyrics aren’t any good, they don’t really say anything and the result is a track that leaves a genius open to derision from morons in the Anglo music industry who will point to this and claim that is the reason why they can’t promote “foreign” artists, when said artists have sold far more than the shitty little indie band from Camden they have just signed for an inflated advance will ever, ever do.

Once that is out of the way it’s back to business and the last four tracks, including the so called hidden track Boula, will just blow you away. Sebeke and Batoma are possibly the most exciting and vibrant pieces of music I have heard for a year. The guitar lines, the breaks, Mariam’s voice, the majestic sweep of the music enthral, exhilarate and transport you to the finest dance bar in the world where the beer is always cold and the music is always hot. God these are great tracks.

So that’s about it really. Except to say that what is missing here is that little bit of extraordinary production that Manu Chao brought to the party. Not that I want all of life and music to remain in a state of stasis but there are producers out there who have similar outlooks, people who could bring an extra side to what is already wonderful music. They add an extra element that defines the album as something that transcends the pigeonhole so many writers and critics want to place music into; coming from Africa is hard enough without having your music explained away as somehow a marginal activity when compared to such towering no talents as Coldplay and Razorlight.

I reckon next time they should work with Thom Yorke.


Last week I went to the Barbican to see Amadou and Mariam as part of the Africa Now series. The night before they had made the Africa Express night at Koko's their own. I couldn't make it to Koko, maily because the gig is the most disabled unfriendly gig in London, but apparently it was a madhouse of magic. At the Barbican, given the nature of the event, they came on to perform three songs. Obviously exhausted from the night before they performed Sabali, Ce n'est pas bon and Dimanche à Bamako. Damon Albarn came onstage for Sabali and the song made a whole load more sense when it was just Mariam, Damon and his melodica. After seeing the performance I couldn't help but wonder why they hadn't recorded the track like that instead of ladeling on the extraneous keyboard stuff.

The night was a bit of a curate's egg to be honest. The idea was to emulate elements of the East-West collaborations of Africa Express but only with African artists. Like I said, on the whole it was great. maybe a little exessive on the Toumani Diabate front but in all honesty I had gone for Amadou and Mariam and the legendary Rachid Taha.

Unfortunately Rachid didn't get onstage until gone 10.30 pm. Whether this was down to his enjoyment of backstage facilities or because of politics a lot of people had already left by the time he came on to play a short set. I noticed that when all the sub-Sahara acts had been playing there was a lot of interspersing of musicians, a general good vibe jam session quality to the event but when Rachid came on there was a marked absence of guests appearing with him. I have no idea why but I hope there wasn't any weird reason for it. Also who ever Rachid has playing guitar for him at the moment is a complete knob, more suited to some covers band from Colorado Springs than the true heir to The Clash.

Next time Rachid is in town you really need to go and see him. There are no British or American bands that come close to his elemental power, the only artists in the same league at present are Tom Waits and Nick Cave.

Anyway rock on Amadou and Mariam

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