Amadou & Mariam’s story has been told countless times, but its charming and romantic tale is the kind that bears repeating. Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia fell in love at the Institute for Young Blind People in Bamako Mali, more than 30 years ago, and since then, the duo has been, quite literally, making beautiful music together. It’s only been in recent years, however, that the duo has achieved international recognition, particularly stateside. Their 2005 album Dimanche á Bamako thrust them on the world stage with a collection of African music built from vibrant production courtesy of Marc-Antoine Moreau and Lauren Jais, not to mention some sonic collaboration with Manu Chao.
With Welcome To Mali, Amadou & Mariam allow both rougher edges and smoother pop sheen into their oeuvre, resulting in an album with a wider scope, but a nonetheless impressive focus in terms of songcraft. Leadoff track “Sabali” may come off as a slight surprise to those familiar with the Malinese duo, incorporating a strong electronic pop sound, thanks in large part to Blur’s Damon Albarn. Yet it’s an absolutely gorgeous song, driven by Mariam’s soaring register into an unforgettable pop melody. The incredible “Ce N’est Pas Bon” is bluesier and more raw, by comparison, though Albarn still incorporates some electronic elements, retaining a danceable element throughout its somewhat grungy tone.
“Djama” is a blistering standout, with its dance-friendly beats and fiery organ sounds, while “Djuru” marries exotic instrumentation with trip-hop beats. While upbeat rhythms still permeate “Je te Kiffe,” it’s a brilliant ballad regardless, with soft minor key melodies drifting atop its shuffling beats. Then comes the furious guitar licks of “Masiteladi,” which stands as one of the hardest rocking tracks on this collection, particularly when the hard-hitting drums enter after the first verse. There’s a soulful, garage rock sound to “Africa,” a stellar collaboration with Somali emcee K’Naan, and English-sung “I Follow You” is a passionate and romantic song that will enchant even the hardest of hearts.
In an odd turn of events, Amadou & Mariam have landed a spot opening for Coldplay on their upcoming U.S. tour, but it’s not as outrageous as it might initially seem. Amadou & Mariam make pop music in its most pure and most passionate form, and even with a language barrier, it’s hard not to feel something magical in the duo’s beautiful and energetic compositions. Welcome to Mali is a revelation, a captivating set of songs that sound timeless and universal. This album will make you feel alive.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.