With its fat here-comes-everybody sound, intimate yet worldly musical content, and high-profile collaborator, Dimanche Bamako is everything an international breakout ought to be. Mali marrieds Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia have been blending West African traditionalism, Euro-American pop, and political protestation since 1980, though, so you'll have to forgive them for taking their 10th album's inevitable success somewhat in stride.
Still, Franco-Iberian rabble-rouser Manu Chao has catalyzed the couple's strongest work to date. His writing contributions include three equally exquisite versions of "M'bifé " in addition tothe casual, ambient cacophony he adds to more typically Chavian tracks such as the chaotic emigration reverie "Senegal Fast-Food," the subtly Kraftwerkian "Camion Sauvage," and the hyper-urbane "Taxi Bamako." The record ends up a nearly perfect balance of the couple's Bambara heritage and Chao's nervous deterritorialization. Amadou waxes nostalgic for the country in "La Fete du Village" and "Beaux Dimanches," gorgeous songs revealing a subtle tension between the duo's regional upbringing and international yearnings. A deeper anxiety, in fact a real fear of abandonment, lies at the core of Doumbia's "Gnidjougouya" ("Perversity") and her lyrics to "M'bifé," which speak to cold personal betrayal. Both Amadou and Mariam, you may have heard, are blind, and their literally codependent intimacy obviously shapes much of their music.
The pair's stylish symbiosis extended to their August 8 shows at Joe's Pub, where they performed not a single Chao composition. (When I asked them why the following afternoon, the couple answered, perhaps a tad disingenuously, that Chao wasn't around to sing them.) That minor disappointment, though, was easily overshadowed by the revelation that Amadou is a stone guitar hero. While Mariam's voice blended sentimental French pop with American grit, Amadou's playing was flashy, funky, and totally down-to-earth. This 50-year-old Bamako bad boy's ripping solos and dynamic boogie during the ancestor-praising "Coulibaly" and circumcision-ceremonial "Toubala Kono" brought down the house. If Ali Farka Touré is Mali's John Lee Hooker (which he is, even if he ain't), Amadou is its Henry Vestine, the late fuzz-tone magus of Canned Heat.
Amadou and Mariam's onstage personas were electrified versions of the pop-folkies of earlier albums like Tje Ni Mousso and Sou Ni Tilé. Dimanche Bamako isn't their magnum opus final statement or a new beginning by a long shot. Right about now, they just happen to be up where they belong.
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