Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia are a married pair of musicians from Bamako, Mali who met in the 1970’s at Mali's Institute for the Young Blind and who refer to themselves as “The Blind Couple of Mali.” They’ve been making music since the 80’s together, but it was mostly released in Côte d'Ivoire where they lived until they relocated to Paris in the 1990’s and began releasing albums internationally in 1998. Their earlier music – allegedly, very few folks outside Côte d'Ivoire have heard much of it – is far more spare and traditional than the albums that got them famous in Paris and beyond but by the time of this record, their third to be released on an international scale, they had refined their style to the point where absorbing influence from any and all music they heard wouldn’t change their core sound – a globally aware pop firmly rooted in the traditions of Mali and the more modern electric blues that many Malians had made a similarly global mark with.
The album kicks off with one of their best ever tracks, “Chantez-Chantez,” an irresistible uptempo cut centered on a chorus that goes:
In other words: “sing, play, dance” - an idea that will carry you through the entire record, even when their lyrics (mostly in Bambara and French) touch on the socio-political realm. The music here – and throughout the record – finds the duo and their band adeptly using whatever styles they choose on their Malian pop foundation. They adopt different approaches for each song, absorbing American and European pop – along with other African and Middle Eastern styles – into their music, and put together a disc that runs for nearly 70 minutes, but doesn’t have a dud in the batch. True, maybe some cuts jump out at you more – the lead tracks grab you before they settle in for a bit – but surprises keep popping up to shake things up and stick individual tunes in the memory banks – violin here, multi-tracked trombones there, Spanish guitar there. And though it kicks off in high gear, they’re in it for the long haul with the album cresting around the middle with the Latin-tinged “Bali Maou” and the peppy, poppy “Si ni Kan” to follow it with another boost. And then it gets another surge with the simply great “Fantani” (probably the second-best cut here after the lead track and on the right day I might call it the best) and rolls through to the end. Even when they get more complex, as in the rhythms of “Laban” they remain catchy and propulsive – there’s no reason you shouldn’t still stick with “Chantez-chantez / Jouez-jouez / Dansez-dansez” as the principle to guide you through the record.
Amadou & Mariam’s international profile has only gone up from this album. Their follow-up album Wati is a further refined version of this record (with the great cut "Chaffeurs") and they then connected with world Music maestro Manu Chao to create their U.S. breakthrough Dimanche à Bamako, a move which got them connected with the terrific Nonesuch label for U.S. distribution, where they’ve continued to fruitfully mix up styles while remaining true to their core ideas ever since, even being invited to perform at Coachella, Lollapalooza, and other major music festivals. They don’t have a bad record out there, but this one is the first one in their catalog where they upped their game and made plain what their musical intentions were and it still stands as one of their finest in a very fine oeuvre.
- Patrick Brown