No one can accuse Amadou & Mariam of being beholden to their West African roots or immune to the lure of crossover appeal. They’ve been skillfully mixing measures of each since their international breakthrough Sou Ni Tile in 1998. Of course, Amadou’s chunky blues guitar and griot-inspired vocals have been a perfect match with Mariam’s piercing, angelic singing for even longer, the two having worked as a duo since 1983. But it’s in recent years that they’ve achieved fame on a more global level, playing large scale rock festivals, opening for the likes of U2 and Coldplay and getting a lot of favorable mention in the mainstream press. That same sort of recognition hasn’t spoiled the musical integrity of fellow Malians Vieux Farka Toure or Tinariwen, and as Amadou & Mariam’s new Folila shows, success isn’t about to throw them off course, either.
Originally planned as two albums, one a contemporary-leaning, guest artist-heavy disc recorded in New York City and the other a more traditional collection tracked in Bamako, Folila (which simply means “music” in the Bambara language) instead combines both approaches and both locations. The guest artists are there, including French rocker Bertrand Cantat and British vocalist Ebony Bones as well as members of Scissor Sisters and TV on the Radio, but their presence enhances the sheer electricity of the star duo and doesn’t detract from it.
"C'est Pas Facile Pour Les Aigles"
Please Sir, don't question my qualifications
Sweeping streets won't pay for my education
Hands in my head
Set for new destinations
Don't like my kind ?
Go tell Immigration
Struggling for her next of kin
But she came to win, she came to win
See, she's got the heart and she's got the brains
But she's got too much Melanin
Unlike the programmed groove that got Amadou & Mariam’s last album, Welcome to Mali, off to a dodgy start, Folila opens with a guitar riff as instantly fine as anything Amadou has cranked out in the past and a sign of good things to come. Such goods include some very zesty English response singing (courtesy of Jake Shears) bolstering the duo's committed attack on “Metemya,” Cantat’s contributions of guitar, harmonica and vocals on four tracks including the blistering, horn-and-organ fortified “Africa Mon Afrique” and further vocals in English by Ebony Bones adding to the energy of "C’est Pas Facile Pour Les Aigles," which jams like a combination of highlife, Latin rock and the Clash. “Sans Toi,” “Mogo” and “Cherie” recall Amadou & Mariam’s more familiar African foundation, and there are instrumental sounds (djembe, ngoni, kora) that assure ongoing connection to the couple’s homeland. But they’re reaching past their borders like never before, and the grace, expertise and inspiration with which they do so are the reasons Folila works as well as it does. - Tom Orr