Amadou et Mariam
The Blind Couple of Mali is one of the world's most unlikely star pop acts. Meeting in a home for the blind as children, they moved to the Ivory Coast and eventually scored big with the gutsy Sou ni Tilé (Night and Day). Amadou and Mariam are back with another complementarily named album, Tje ni Mousso (Man and Woman). Those who think that modern African artists be forbidden from being innovative will detest this album. Amadou and Mariam freely use aspects of modern Western pop, from instruments to rhythms and melodies, in their music. The ease with which the blend comes together in their music is remarkable, and the enjoyable result will not end up sounding like misguided experimentation when you listen again in a few years.
One can hear the recent success of Malian musicians on the opening cut, "Chantez-Chantez" ("Sing, Sing") an explosive full-on electric blues piece. Ali Farka Touré, Afel Bocoum, Lobi Traoré, and Toumani Diabaté are just a few of the Malian artists who have been exploring the similarities of their traditions with modern American blues music, with great success; Amadou and Mariam take the comparison to a logical end-point. "Chantez-Chantez" traces its roots more directly to the South Side of Chicago than to Amadou and Mariam's hometown of Ségu, and has a feel of New World raucousness that the Sahel does not tend to produce. Another feature of this song, and their music in general, that is not typical of Malian tradition is the theme of romantic love, and Amadou's deep, smooth voice handles it flawlessly.
On other cuts, there is more of a rock feel - "Beki Miri" sounds like a fortunate cross of Jethro Tull, Phish, and Bamako's Rail Band. On paper, the combination does not seem too promising, but the production is fantastic and the product is outstanding. "Bali Maow" ("Family") is a driving bluesy number, powered by the Hammond organ and curious Latin touches, that is absolutely infectious, even if one has no idea what Amadou is singing about in his native Bamamankan. (The song is about a European who they feel is like family.) In fact, Amadou and Mariam sing unimaginative and somewhat corny songs when they move to the French language. "Dek I Lalane" is basically about going to meet Tuareg nomads in northern Mali, and while it's a great song, it's somewhat vacuous when you get down to it.
Kudos go not only to Amadou and Mariam, but also to the entire team of producers and musicians who made Tje ni Mousso possible. Their success is the stuff of fiction, but it is certainly well deserved. - Craig Tower
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