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

Baroque Wind Trio Extravaganza
June 6

Italian composer Giovanni Battista Sammartini, one of the most visionary figures of 16th century concert symphony, left behind a vast catalog of operas and sonatas upon his death. Many were lost in his hometown, Milan, until researchers unearthed them in 1913 and began scouting Europe for the remaining surviving scores. Now Gregory Bynum (recorder), Andrew Blotowsky (Baroque flute), and Paula Rand (Baroque bassoon) will pay tribute to many of his beautiful trios, as well as offer selected works from Haydn, Purcell, and Telemann. Morris-Jumel Mansion, 65 Jumel Terrace, Washington Heights, morrisjumel.org

Ethel and Gutbucket
June 20

This year's Celebrate Brooklyn Festival has the best little lineup in any borough: David Byrne on June 8, Blonde Redhead on June 26, Dr. Dog and Phosphorescent on June 27, etc. The most exciting installment, though, may be a meeting of less notorious but equally irreverent minds: postclassical string quartet Ethel and art-noise cerebrals Gutbucket, who will perform a score to the obscure 1959 Mexican sci-fi flick La Nave de Los Monstruos. It's about women from Venus slutting it up across the universe—and no, it's not a documentary. Prospect Park Bandshell, briconline.org/celebrate

Buffy Sainte-Marie
July 2

Buffy Sainte-Marie has been a bit sideswept by protest singer-songwriters of the '60s such as Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez. But she was no less a galvanizer in the era; the Canadian multi-instrumentalist sang about acceptance and Native American identity with a sweet vibrato as tremulous as the times. Artists from Elvis to Cher covered her wispy, fingerpicked hit "Until It's Time for You to Go," and she's continued recording since: While the times and her neighborhood have changed, her beatific ideas have not. Highline Ballroom, 431 West 16th Street, highlineballroom.com

Sonic Youth
July 3

Ready for a punk pilgrimage? Take the 1 Train to 175th for the uptown/downtown convergence of the year. Brooding homegrown icons Sonic Youth, still the axis of all things art-noise after 25 years together, will bring the momentum of their terrific, sprawling new album The Eternal to the United Palace, a 1930s theater with sumptuous details intact. Raise your beer, but don't spill it on the fancy moldings. United Palace Theater, 4140 Broadway, bowerypresents.com

Los Fabulosos Cadillacs
July 11

Democracy in action: Argentine español-rockers Los Fabulosos Cadillacs have nine members but no band leader, which explains the wide stylistic variances in their 15 albums since 1986; they simply follow the muse in whomever it inhabits. (Extra fortune when it inhabits Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz of Talking Heads, who produced 1995's thrash-fused Rey Azucar.) Their diverse amalgams of rap, reggae, and punk with traditional South American rhythms always sound like the brink—of Western structure, maybe, but absolutely of giddy possibility. Central Park Summerstage, summerstage.com

Siren Festival
July 18

Even "Shoot the Freak" is feeling the recession nowadays, but a few things at Coney Island are still blessedly free: sandcastles, used syringes, and the Siren Festival, the Voice's annual shindig of terrific music and terrifying bacchanalia. Past performers include M.I.A. and Cursive; past highlights have included 90 percent of attendees drunkenly riding the Cyclone and eating cotton candy while treading in the ocean. (Or was that just me? Recommended.) This year's extra-solid lineup includes Built to Spill, the Raveonettes, and Micachu & the Shapes. Yes, we're a smidge biased. 10th Street (next to the Cyclone rollercoaster) and on Stillwell Avenue, Coney Island, villagevoice.com/siren

Bob James
August 1

One of jazz's most sought-after studio musicians is no stranger to futzing with electronics; his sterling 1965 album Explosions was a landmark in improvised bop, the first to combine avant-garde electronic effects and strange sound synergies (including plucking the strings inside the piano body). A hell-raiser, this one was—and he continues to loan that swing to others, produce artists, run Tappan Zee Records, and release his own commercially viable LPs. He'll have something for everyone at Blue Note, and endless prospects behind each groove. Blue Note, 131 West 3rd Street, bluenote.net

Etienne de Crécy
August
2

De Crécy's schmancy new stage show, a glowing Hollywood Squares–style cube that suspends his turntables in the center, is commanding all the attention nowadays, but there are tremendous deep-house skills behind the geometrical gimmick. His Super Discount duo carved Air remixes and originals from vapor into demanding, ambitious house, and immodestly established the DJ as a Svengali behind Paris's '90s techno boom. His latest release, Tempovision, slid a down-pace into disco club. He plays this year's All Points West festival, which features, among many other acts, Coldplay, Echo & the Bunnymen, MGMT, and the Silversun Pickups. Liberty State Park, Jersey City, apwfestival.com

FLO RIDA
August 14

If there were ever a reason to rise at 4 a.m., wouldn't it be to witness the historic, insanely awkward banter between Flo Rida and Matt Lauer? The gruff "Low" rapper takes to Rockefeller Center for a Today show set—certainly not one of the strangest things to happen at 30 Rock, but one of the few that requires 6 a.m. arrival. Count on single "Right Round" from recent sophomore album R.O.O.T.S. and possibly T-Pain in a top hat and kitty pajamas. Today show, Rockefeller Center

Hudson River Park Blues and BBQ Festival
August 23

A southern BBQ in the West Village? What would Carrie Bradshaw say? The annual Hudson River Park picnic on Pier 54 hosts accomplished blues musicians and a cross-sampling of the best BBQ joints on the island. This year's equally palatable music lineup: Delta songbird Eden Brent, left-handed "rock-a-blues" guitarist Eddy Clearwater, powerhouse gospel vocalist Diunna Greenleaf, teenaged B.B. King/Stevie Ray Vaughan disciples Homemade Jamz' Blues Band, electric down-home firestarter Michael Burks, and more. Hudson River Park, Pier 54 at West 14th Street, hudsonriverpark.org

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