Amadou et Mariam
Sou Ni Tile

Once upon a time, two Malians met in Bamako while performing with the choir of the blind home where they lived. They formed a duo and made beautiful music together in Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast as "The Blind Couple of Mali." Then they released Sou Ni Tile and lived happily ever after.

That is the simple story of Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia, according to the liner notes. The real Sou Ni Tile ("Night and Day" in Bamanan) is infinitely more complex, written by Amadou and Mariam and performed by a multiethnic group of French, African, Indian and other players. The first notes of the ballad, "Je Pense a Toi" ("I Think of You") are played not on West African kora or calabash, but the South Indian tabla. Yet this lush, mournful tune is absolutely Malian. Amadou's painful cry of love twines in and out of the violin lines, while the rich guitar chords pull the melody along over the smooth stroking electric bass and plush keyboards. Another sweet tearjerker is "Pauvre Type" ("Poor Guy"), in which Amadou invites us to look at the life of an impoverished youth trying to have fun on a Saturday night, borrowing clothes from relatives and buying tea, sugar and a single cigarette on credit before meeting his friends to party. The bluesy vocal presses gently against a pulsing Latin percussion, and the gaps in the duel are filled by the interjection of a tight trombone battery, reinforcing the desperation and delight of the lyrics and creating a pop masterpiece.

The entire album is a taut balance between sadness and joy. Even the lilting reggae of "A Radio Mogo" (a praise song "To Radio Workers") has a blue tint underneath Mariam's thankful voice and the pulsing brass. The one disappointment is the confused liner notes, which seem thorough at first, but give a flowery and uninformative biography of the couple followed by lyrical translations that leave a lot to be desired. But don't let this stop you enjoying the album. It's one of the best of the year. - Craig Tower

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