Amadou & Mariam: “Welcome to Mali”

welcome-to-mali

Here in the West, I think we have a tendency to think about so-called world music all wrong. The term– itself embarrassingly reductive; must we lump all non-English speaking countries into the same giant heap?– invokes images of tribal musicians huddled in a circle with hand-made instruments, banging out some kind of rudimentary, primitive folk music. Never do we pause to consider that maybe– just maybe– some of these “world musicians” have actually heard songs from clans outside of their own, and integrated these sounds and ideas into their own style. In other words: We assume that the musicians in other parts of the world are just as ignorant of other cultures as we are.

Amadou and Mariam put us to shame. I’m not sure where they got their Stevie Wonder records, or which American pop stations they’re able to pick up in their native Mali, but the music they make together is a thing of marvelous, integrative beauty and cultural synthesis: They know almost as much about Western pop and R&B as they do their own native blues. They are shaped but not defined by their own geography, and their songs are as much a celebration of globalization and melting-pot diversity as they are an homage to a particular culture and set of traditions. Though the two are a married couple who met in a school for the blind and subsequently became internationally-renowned musical virtuosos, their amazing life story is actually nowhere near as remarkable as the music they make together.

Welcome to Mali is both a culmination and a continuation of their incredible journey. Their first record to be domestically released in the United States, it follows on the heels of Dimanche a Bamako, the album that made them stars in Europe, and it both hones and advances their cross-cultural imagination. They write and play with the confidence and vision of the veterans that they are, but the album practically bursts at the seams with ideas and eclecticism– the kind of freewheeling enthusiasm one might expect from a much younger duo.

But if their years of making music together haven’t left them jaded, they have tempered their ambition with a lived-in wisdom that keeps their adventurous inclinations from overshadowing the heart and spirit of their music. That they’re increasingly interested in exploring non-African musical idioms is evident from the fact that they invite Damon Albarn to produce the opening track, “Sabali,” and the collaboration brings out the best in both artists. Albarn has Mariam sing the lead vocal through a hazy filter– suggesting a certain retro vibe– but the synths he surrounds her with suggests something else altogether. It’s more than a meeting of African blues and Western pop; its sonic signifiers are out of time and space, and the emotional impact transcends not just culture, but any cognitive notion of crossing boundaries. It’s simply great, emotionally rich music.

The rest of the album both follows that blueprint and splinters off in all kinds of new directions. Amadou’s guitar work– complex and sophisticated, but also deeply funky– keeps things rooted in Africa, but the brass, winds, mallet percussion, and synths betray a musical vocabulary that comes from somewhere other. Rapper K’naan helps them guide one track into full-on hip-hop territory, and, on the record’s most European number, “I Follow You,” Amadou sings a sweet, simple love song to his wife, entirely in English.

The fact that most of the rest of the album isn’t in English is of no consequence; Amadou and Mariam serve a timely reminder that vision, craft, and inspiration sound the same in any language. An album so ambitious and inclusive has to be big, and Welcome to Mali is certainly that: It’s a sweeping work of astonishing diversity, and it takes a few spins to pull it all together. But its rewards are inumerable, and at the top of the list is this: That the album just might cause us to think twice about our reductionist stance toward music from other cultures. After all, it’s made by two musicians who know much better.

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