My first exposure to the Mali husband-wife duo Amadou & Mariam was hearing their breakout 2005 album Dimanche A Bamako played over the speakers at a Barnes & Noble. I was grooving to a xylophone break-down so hard I found myself buying the CD. It was pretty okay. They were billed as a blues duo, but their sound was shiny and colorful. But it was produced by world-music legend Manu Chao, and they let him sing on several tracks, and I felt like it really compromised the sound. (If I wanted to hear a Manu Chao song, I'd go buy his record.) So I was looking forward to the group defining their own sound without the influence of guest artists.
So, of course, I catch word that their newest offering Folila is supposed to be loaded with guest artists. And it is... all but 2 tracks have a parenthetical (feat.) next to the title. So I was ready to let this album have it. It was gonna have it hard.
However, it has the audacity to be good.
I mean, it's not 'light a cigarette and cuddle' good. More like 'found five bucks in an old jacket pocket' good. But however you slice it, Amadou & Mariam have a tight, soulful sound that lends itself well to the large ensemble feel of the album. It's layered and intricate without sacrificing its overarching 'feel.'
Both parties have excellent vocal abilities, and for the most part they relegate the guest vocalists to the background. As they should... Mariam's got a lilting, sassy funk going on, especially on "Wily Kataso," the record's big single featuring Tunde and Kyp of TV On The Radio. Amadou has more of a searching soar to him, as evidenced on "Metemya," where it's strangely (and effectively) paired with the chirping of Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters.
Instrumentally, the record does employ some classic staples of Afro-Beat and World Music sounds. However, it seems to feel most at home lounging in the classic 1970's funk milieu. The guitars are wah-wahed and choppy, the low end shuffles delightfully, the drums bounce and saunter. And the horns are great, from the unexpected bass clarinet maneuverings on "Mogo" to the blast and swagger of "Africa Mon Afrique." On the whole, the sound is tight, playful, and almost Isaac Hayesian in its bad-mother-shut-yo-mouth-ness.
It ain't perfect. "Nebe Miri" with Theophilus London seems slightly off the beaten path, like a clueless record producer phoned in and decided that they needed a rapper on this project after all. And sometimes the slew of guest artists draw attention away from the songs themselves. But at the end of the day, if you feel like listening to some funky tracks in a language that you most likely do not understand, Folila might just scratch your proverbial itch.
Also, xylophones. You can't go wrong with xylophones. It's a fact. Proven by science.
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