Album Review: Amadou & Mariam - Folila

Malian duo Amadou & Mariam (Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia) have an impeccable talent for tapping into the most current and fascinating sounds in music whenever they record a new album. In 2003, they tapped red-hot artist Manu Chao to produce their wonderful album Dimanche à Bamako. In 2008, their album Welcome to Mali welcomed hot-topic guests like K’Naan and Damon Albarn. Now in 2012, their new album, Folila, again reads like a who’s-who of the moment. Santigold lends her vocals to Mariam’s in the opening track “Dougou Badia” while Yeah Yeah Yeah’s guitarist Nick Zinner rips it up with Amadou. Theophilus London raps on the song “Nebe Miri,” Sub Pop Records alum Bassekou Kouyaté has a buzzin’ n’goni duet with Amadou on “Oh Amadou,” and other guests include TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone and Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters. Not all the collaborations work, of course, for example British singer Ebony Bones bobble-heads back and forth strangely against the more fluid sound of Amadou & Mariam’s singing, but that’s par for the course on an album this broadly diverse. Happily, even with all these guest stars, Amadou & Mariam haven’t lost their traditional roots. The truly beautiful sound of Mali’s one-string fiddle, the sokou, snakes through the gentle vocals of “Sans Toi,” as the duo sing in French “Oh, je t’aime/Tu es la lumière de ma vie/Oh, je t’aime/Tu es le soleil de ma journée” [Oh, I love you/You are the light of my life/Oh, I love you/You are the sun of my days]. This restrained and haunting song reminds the listener just why all these acclaimed artists are lining up to collaborate with the duo.

Folila is an album built of collaborations, and many reviewers have pointed out that the album was meant to be two albums, one recorded in New York and one recorded in Mali. Instead, Amadou & Mariam fused those two albums into one, mixing the different parts together in Paris. But honestly, the album feels like a seamless whole, and if some people would have preferred more New York indie action or more traditional Mali action in the album, they’re missing the point of Amadou & Mariam’s music: whatever their roots or origins, the pair are now full-blown international pop stars. And like pop stars throughout the world, they freely and happily pillage whatever sounds of the moment they find fascinating. At one point in the song “Baro,” it even seems like Amadou’s channeling a Tuareg “desert blues” guitar style. Maybe I’m missing something in the backstory or history, but it seems strange that the originally obscure music of Tuareg guitarists would have to be embraced by Western audiences before it came back to the pop stars of its home in Mali. But that’s how it goes in our world today, music flows back and forth between continents at the speed of digital transmissions, and really this isn’t anything new. The blues has been flowing back and forth from Africa to the New World for centuries now, and Africa and Latin America have been trading riffs and rhythms for the same amount of time. Music and culture have always flowed between continents, and if a digital world has increased the speed of these interactions, the upshot is that we get fascinating cross-cultural collaborations like this.

Check out the song “Wily Kataso” feat. those TV on the Radio guys:

Amadou & Mariam feat. Santigold - Dougou Badia

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