Amadou & Mariam
Monday, February 6
Better than: Waiting for the official tour.
When it comes to music rooms with a stunning view, it was tough to beat the penthouse at the Cooper Square Hotel (now André Balazs’s unfortunately named The Standard East Village) last summer, when Annie Ohayon’s L’Afrik C’Est Chic series featured guitarist Amadou Bagayoko and his singing wife Mariam Doumbia during a handful of stunning evenings. As the setting sun created spectacular effects on the surrounding architecture, the couple from Mali, who also happen to be blind, performed stripped-down versions of their repertoire inches away from a stylish international crowd shoehorned into the bar. It was sort of perfect.
Amadou and Mariam’s equally minimal invitation-only appearance at The Box was less so, although still something of a treat. It came at the end of a day dedicated to shooting a video for “Wily Kataso” (Go Home) from the fiftysomething pair’s April release, Folila (We Came to Play the Music). Guest vocalists Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone from TV on the Radio were also on hand. As members of the production team gesticulated wildly from the sides of the stage, the four singers lip-synced as videocameras filmed the dancing crowd. It didn’t take much to manufacture enthusiasm. The audience had already been primed with attire suggestions such as “artist hipster,” “Warhol-esque dance party,” “Manhattan business professional,” “sexy night out,” and—best of all—”TV on the Radio urban.” As Duffman might say: “Oh yeah!”
The business of show out of the way, Amadou and Mariam appeared together alone onstage and jumped right into a bone-dry version of the song we’d just heard (twice) in all its overproduced glory: Most of the tracks on Folila consist of multiple performances recorded in New York, Paris, and Bamako, Mali, the couple’s hometown. The redundant approach accommodates traditional instruments; guests like controversial French singer Bertrand Cantat, Tuareg performer Abdallah Oumbadougou, and Santigold; and the heavy-handed embellishments of co-producers Bagayoko and Marc-Antoine Moreau.
Amadou’s a terrific blues guitarist, but you wouldn’t have known it from the simplicity with which he strummed through their short set. The couple performed four tracks from Folila in addition to the beautiful “Je Pense à Toi” (I Think of You) from their first international album, 1999’s Sous Ni Tile, and the title track of their 2005 breakout, Dimanche à Bamako. In between songs, Mariam hyped the crowd of extras by chanting “Choc! Choc! Choc!” But even the neo-New Orleans charm of the venue couldn’t diminish the awkwardness of the curtain closing on the oblivious and unerringly dignified couple in the middle of “Dougou Badia.” Oh yeah.
Singing together in bone-dry harmonies echoing Mali’s griot tradition, Amadou and Mariam are profoundly citizens of two worlds, with influences accruing upon them the speed of contemporary culture. You have to give them gobs of credit for offering a glimpse into their musical DNA through degree-zero performances like this. And of course they’ll be back with their band in good time.
Critical bias: Had to cool heels for an hour past the time I’d been told it would start. You’d think I’d have learned by now.
Overheard: “I could name ten African albums out last year that were better than w h o k i l l.”
Random notebook dump: At least there was no burlesquerie.
Je Pense à Toi
Dimanche à Bamako