Summer Guide: Amadou & Mariam's A Global Affair

Damon Albarn lends this "blind couple from Mali" a dash of Britpop

The label "world music" is irritating at best, that all-too-frequent amalgam for anything non-catchy, non-Western, non-collapsible into minuscule genres. Why do we keep Indian shehnai in the same confines as Chilean folkloric? There are no links—scales, lyrical patterns, instruments—to assimilate the regional songs of wildly different areas into one easy brand. And the tag has only grown more popular as the availability of this music grows.

But if anyone truly makes world music, it's Amadou & Mariam, who perform at Webster Hall on June 8. Through their constant curiosity and a romantic ear, the married couple invokes more than the sounds of their West African roots; they seem to be the epicenter of many cultures.

The self-dubbed "blind couple from Mali," Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia have never been solely about their homeland; since they began recording together in 1986, their bright pop has been porous and receptive to globe-spanning influences. In Welcome to Mali, released internationally in 2008 and stateside this past March, their hybridization is their most dramatic yet: Traditional call-and-response shared vocals in French and Bambara (the language of Mali) and blues rock–nipped guitar leads meet such unusual allies as kora (a common African harp lute), flamenco guitar ("Djuru," featuring Toumani Diabaté), and salacious French/English rhymes from Canadian/Somalian rapper K'Naan ("Africa"). Lead single "Sabali" is the most radical departure, a vortex of French vocoder electronica, Mariam's blithe falsetto, and unflappable Britpop, courtesy of producer Damon Albarn (of Blur, Gorillaz, and Africa Express).

"With Welcome to Mali," says Amadou, "we wanted to get closer to our early-youth ambition of doing universal music that could sound a bit like the music we were listening to, but also give a new and genuine dimension to our own Bambara music. Growing up in Mali is growing up with the music—childhood is pure joy." He's e-mailing from Paris, the duo's home base away from Mali. "Thus, working with Damon was great, because he came with his music on a melody Mariam created, and suddenly we could hear British music on a Bambara song!"

But before their recording career together, Amadou and Mariam were a romance. They met in 1975 as teenagers at the Institute for Young Blind People in Bamako, Mali's capital. Amadou was already a noted musician in the rock/Afrobeat outfit Les Ambassadeurs du Motel, and began at the institute after losing his sight in his early teens. Mariam, four years his junior, was the star singer of the school orchestra and had been blind since the age of five. They began recording together soon after they met, writing first in Bambara, then translating into French and again into English. (The same formula exists today.) Then came performing together—first locally in Mali, and eventually throughout Africa's Ivory Coast and Europe. They married in 1980, and raised three children. Like any good husband, Amadou remembers the exact moment they met.

"It was the morning, around 10 a.m. The atmosphere was peaceful," he recalls. "When I got into the classroom, Mariam grabbed my attention and was the highlight because she was already a singer at the time. Happiness was in the room. . . . Each one of us had experienced becoming blind, and the fact that we had been doing music already was a gift."

Seven albums later, including 2005's masterful Dimanche a Bamako (produced by Parisian worldbeat rocker Manu Chao), Amadou & Mariam are poised for a new plateau of crossover success. The missing cog is America; Welcome to Mali earned five-star reviews and hyperbolic praise from the European and African press last year, and they hope their full summer slate will bring their long-awaited U.S. breakthrough. They'll traverse Europe and perform with Blur at London's Hyde Park, but the emphasis is on the States: a headlining East Coast/Canadian tour, opening West Coast slots for Coldplay.

It seems time; they welcomed us to Mali, and now it's our turn to welcome them here.

Webster Hall, 125 East 11th Street, websterhall.com

SUMMER MUSIC PICKS

Amanda Palmer
June 5

The Dresden Dolls' self-affixed label of "Brechtian punk cabaret" was never quite apt—it paraded their aggressive, gaudy pop as a spectacle to be reflectively detached from, yet this concept was never exhibited in any substantial way. But erstwhile frontwoman Palmer is trying a new tack as a solo artist; her 2008 debut, Who Killed Amanda Palmer?, was more personal and plainly emotional, with an inviting warmth her former band never dreamed up. Where her performances were once icy, they are now communal, campy, and just a bit sleazy. Highline Ballroom, 431 West 16th Street, highlineballroom.com

TV on the Radio
June 5

Your Pazz & Jop victors have command over more than the votes of some nebbish music journos—they control the cosmos. During their recent Coachella gig, singer Kyp Malone commanded the sun to set and it hurriedly did, perhaps because it, too, wanted to hear "Red Dress." As beautifully calamitous as they sounded on last year's Dear Science, the group's revolving roster is strongest live, with piercing brass and overwhelming percussion that underscores their Afrobeat influences. They have less to be enraged about since the inauguration—but, then, you like 'em angry. Central Park Summerstage, summerstage.com

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