The World Isn't Flat

An international export for people who don't believe in world trade: Amadou and Mariam
Courtesy of Amadou and Mariam

Amadou & Mariam
Dimanche à Bamako


West African voices typically vault heavenward, elevated by a muezzin's keen that unsettles and transports. The modest harmonies of Amadou and Mariam? Eh, not so much. Up against a force of nature like Oumou Sangare, Mariam Doumbia's tone sounds thin rather than pinched, flat rather than bluesy. Comparisons to Salif Keita reveal the sonorous delivery of Amadou Bagayoko to be haplessly earthbound.

Yet such unfair comparisons to the gold standards of Malian performance also highlight the strengths that Amadou and Mariam extract from their modesty. The duo's voices scuffle along hopefully together, meandering inventively like Bagayoko's guitar lines. They remain rooted in a palpable sanity and stability.

In other words, from their celebrated marital satisfaction to the troubadour trappings that read as exotica, "The Blind Couple of Mali" are a multicultural fantasy. And it's one that European audiences have readily embraced. What seems to have attracted their latest collaborator, however, is an aesthetic pliability, their willingness to adapt rather than assimilate. Manu Chao, a stylistically omnivorous, French-born Barcelonan who traipses to the beat of his own left-populism, produced the couple's latest disc, Dimanche a Bamako (Nonesuch), and man, does it sound like it. As on Manu Chao's own discs, background chatter and found sounds stitch the cuts together to create the dizzying effect of a six-year-old who can't keep his hands off the radio dial. This shift away from the duo's typical blues rock somewhat slights Bagayoko's guitar. Yet Chao's production compensates with context, placing the duo's emigrant blues within a richly sketched yet uncertain global setting.

His beat communicates that uncertainty more fluently than anything my few semesters of college French and Google's translation program could scavenge from the CD booklet's printed lyrics. Sometimes, the plainspoken humanism here is a tonic, as on "La Paix" ("Peace"), where Doumbia sings, "I am against no one/Long live the solidarity between peoples." Yet the urgent rhythm of "La Realite," not to mention its police siren, is undercut by the trite fatalism of "While some are born/Others die/That is the sad reality." And given the lyrical yet weary acoustic guitar and piano, you'd hope "Politic Amagni" would translate into something more trenchant than "politics is no good."

Still, if that beat would be less distinctive without this producer, it'd be less commanding without Amadou and Mariam. Chao's own bottom typically skitters on the lithe side of reggae, splitting the difference between bounce and skank. He's got rhythm minus the blues, a lack which Bagayoko and Doumbia compensate for here. The experimental and the familiar often segue seamlessly, as when the West African krautrock of "Camions Sauvages" ("Savage Trucks") runs into the more traditional, patterned repetition of "Beaux Dimanches" ("Beautiful Sundays"). And "Senegal Fast-Food," a dream of jet-setting globalism inconveniently disturbed by nightmares of poverty, contrasts a "there are no problems" stance with "we forget." The effect is to remind us what geologists could teach neoliberals: No, the earth doesn't flatten as it becomes smaller. Instead, tectonic plates crash into one another to yield harsher peaks and valleys.

Chao has long been the ideal spokesmodel for a cross-cultural future--his footloose cosmopolitanism is simply more fun than traditionalism. This latest collaboration makes that vision even more attractive, with Amadou and Mariam providing an anchor of the traditional that counterbalances the dangers ahead. Tying the album together is a simple Doumbia/Chao composition, "M'Bife," an aching plea for a lover's fidelity, presented here in three distinct versions: a straight version, a balafon showcase, and, to close the album, a blues take. Gentle and plaintive, the song epitomizes the excavation of beauty from loss that Chao has in the past neologized as "malegria." That's just the sort of euphemism for soul these bracingly modest humanists deserve.

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